Saturday, May 25, 2024

UK government was ‘scared’, says man behind failed UAE-backed Telegraph bid

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The former CNN executive who fronted a failed bid for the Telegraph newspaper by a UAE-backed consortium has suggested the government was not willing to listen to assurances about editorial neutrality.

Jeff Zucker said there were figures in the UK who were “scared” of the £600m deal, which would have seen the Abu Dhabi-backed consortium, RedBird IMI, take control of the Telegraph and Spectator.

The deal was effectively killed by new legislation brought forward by the government that blocks foreign states from owning newspaper assets in the UK. RedBird IMI announced last month that its takeover of the group was “no longer feasible”.

Speaking at Truth Tellers, the Sir Harry Evans Investigative Journalism Summit in central London on Wednesday, Zucker said RedBird IMI had made “the strongest possible representations to the government here in the UK that there would be no influence” from the United Arab Emirates, and that the investor had been willing to make such assurances “legally binding”.

He said that it was reasonable for the deal to be questioned, but added: “I think it’s also reasonable for others to listen to the answers. Whether they were willing to listen to the answers here on that is a different story.”

Jeff Zucker says his experience with the Telegraph bid has not put him off other investment opportunities in the UK media. Photograph: Belinda Jiao/Reuters

Asked why some people didn’t think it was a good idea, and were worried about the UAE having undue influence in the UK media, he said: “I don’t know that they didn’t think it was a good idea. I think they were scared of it.”

RedBird IMI effectively took control of the Telegraph newspapers and the Spectator magazine in December when it repaid the debts of their owners, the Barclay family, including a £600m loan. Its withdrawal from a full takeover of the business will trigger a fresh round of bidding from interested parties.

Speaking to the Guardian, Zucker said the reaction to the bid was “surprising” after a year in which “more than 1,000 journalists in the UK lost their jobs”. “It’s surprising to me at a time when journalism needs investment, capital, innovation and experience,” he said. “That’s what we were able to bring to the table and I think a lot of people who are smart and have foresight will, in the end, understand that.”

The RedBird IMI takeover of the Telegraph, widely seen as the house journal of the Conservative party, was vocally opposed by many Tory MPs and peers who raised concerns about free speech, and the influence of the UAE which provides the financial backing for 75% of the investment firm.

The concerns prompted the government to draw up legislation in March blocking foreign ownership of UK newspapers, which is expected to become law in the coming weeks.

Zucker insisted RedBird IMI was “excited to sell our option on the Telegraph”, adding that there were “a lot of people who are interested” and there was “no reason to look back”.

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Asked if the experience would deter further investments in the UK, he said: “We’re not put off. In fact, we’re eager to continue other conversations”, pointing to its recent deal with All3Media, the London-based TV and film production company behind Fleabag and Squid Game: The Challenge.

It is RedBird IMI’s fifth investment, after it launched in December 2022, with the goal of building a global media company across news, entertainment and sports. Zucker said he was optimistic about the future of the media industry, and its investment potential.

“Consumption of entertainment and news and information is higher than ever, on more different platforms than ever before,” he said. “The onus is on us to figure out how best to monetise that and I’m confident that we’ll be able to figure that out.”

Those legacy brands that survive would have “owners that are willing to experiment and innovate, have capital and are patient”, he added.

Asked if media organisations understood the scale of the challenge he said: “I do think that there is a little bit of naivety in understanding that the world is changing rapidly. Those who are clutching their pearls don’t recognise that the world is changing. And those who don’t change, usually get left behind.”

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