UK could launch inquiry into Saudi stake in British newspapers

Culture secretary raises editorial concerns after investments in parent companies of Evening Standard and Independent.

    Media regulators are considering whether a Saudi investor's stakes in major British newspapers pose a threat to editorial independence [Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]
    Media regulators are considering whether a Saudi investor's stakes in major British newspapers pose a threat to editorial independence [Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]

    The recent purchase of financial stakes in the corporate parents of British newspapers The Independent and The Evening Standard has been called into question by a government minister in the United Kingdom.

    A letter of concern published on Thursday by British culture secretary Jeremy Wright could trigger an investigation by media regulators into the transactions, which were made by companies registered in the Cayman Islands by an investor with links to the government of Saudi Arabia.

    Following the acquisition by a Saudi buyer, Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel, of minority stakes held by Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev, the secretary said he was "minded" to intervene on "public interest consideration".

    Wright wrote that "accurate presentation of news and the free expression of opinion public interest grounds are relevant to a consideration of the merger".

    However, the letter also stated that there was not yet a "final determination on these matters", as a decision on whether to pursue the investigation is set to come by the end of June.

    Maintaining a free press

    Two years ago, Abuljadayel purchased a 30-percent stake in Lebedev-owned Independent Digital News and Media. And in February, the Financial Times reported that the Saudi investor was also the purchaser of a 30 percent of Lebedev Holdings, which owns the Evening Standard.

    Abuljadayel is affiliated with NCB Capital, which is the investment wing of National Commercial Bank, in which the Saudi government holds a majority stake through its Public Investment Fund.

    Lebedev had sought new capital for the papers, which his family has owned for a decade. By June 17, the Russian media mogul has been asked to provide additional details on how the papers will be structured.

    The UK Office of Communications, commonly known as Ofcom, was last asked whether a media acquisition might be problematic when Rupert Murdoch's Fox sought in 2017 to buy UK broadcaster Sky.

    For now, Ofcom will only proceed with its inquiry if the culture secretary has established that Abuljadayel's investment is a threat to media pluralism. The Competition and Markets Authority could also look into what the investments mean for the UK's business climate.

    But Wright - who serves as the UK's Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport - will first need to scrutinise the ownership and control arrangements at the two papers.

    Staff at the liberal-leaning Independent in particular have expressed concerns about editorial independence for UK press organs, and the possibility that media outlets could be used to exert Saudi influence or soft power.

    The Independent has a reputation for robust coverage of the Middle East by correspondents such as Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Kim Sengupta.

    The Evening Standard, a free daily tabloid affiliated with the Conservative Party, is edited by former chancellor George Osborne. He has said that investors would not change the paper's editorial tone.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News