Foreign powers to be barred from buying British newspapers, Government confirms

Foreign governments will be banned from owning UK newspapers and magazines, a minister has confirmed, amid concern over the gulf state-backed takeover of the Telegraph.

In the face of cross-party pressure and a threatened defeat in the House of Lords, the Government has said it will bring forward an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill that would block such deals.

The move was prompted by concern about the proposed takeover of the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator by Redbird IMI, an investment fund majority-owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, vice president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and owner of Manchester City Football Club.

He added: “We will amend the media merger regime explicitly to rule out newspaper and periodical news magazine mergers involving ownership, influence or control by foreign states.”

He added: “Under the new measures the Secretary of State would be obliged to refer media merger cases to the Competition and Markets Authority through a new foreign state intervention notice where she has reasonable grounds to believe that a merger involving a UK newspaper or news magazine has given or would give a foreign state or body connected to a foreign state, ownership, influence or control.

“The Competition and Markets Authority would be obliged to investigate the possible merger and if it concludes that the merger has resulted or would result in foreign state ownership, influence or control over a newspaper enterprise the Secretary of State would be required by statute to make an order blocking or unwinding the merger.”

The ban could apply to the Telegraph Media Group takeover if the law was passed swiftly, Lord Parkinson suggested.

The proposed buyout has been subject to a separate investigation ordered by the Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer, due to its possible impact on press freedom.

Lord Parkinson said: “We intend that the changes should take immediate effect upon royal assent.

“The Secretary of State is currently considering a live merger case under the Enterprise Act regime, on which I cannot comment further today.

“With regard to any live case, if it is still ongoing when the new changes come into effect, the Secretary of State will continue to follow the process set out in the existing regime and will also apply the new measures that will be set out in the Government amendments.”

Lord Parkinson also confirmed the buyout block would not apply to broadcasters.

A spokesperson for RedBird IMI said the company was “extremely disappointed by today’s development”.

The spokesperson added: “To date, RedBird IMI has made six investments across the UK and US, and we believed the UK’s media environment was worthy of further investment.

“As with each of our deals, we have been clear that the acquisition of The Telegraph and The Spectator has been a fully commercial undertaking. We remain committed to developing powerful and commercially sustainable global media assets.

“We will now evaluate our next steps, with commercial interests continuing to be the sole priority.”

The concession by the Government came as peers were set to debate an amendment to the Bill proposed by Tory former Lords leader Baroness Stowell of Beeston, which would prevent foreign powers from acquiring UK news media organisations.

The Conservative peer, who chairs the Lords Communications and Digital Committee, said: “Freedom of the press is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Because what freedom of the press means is freedom from government.

“The freedom for the media to scrutinise and hold to account those of us in Parliament on behalf of the electorate, who get to choose who governs and every government’s fate.

“Upholding that unbroken principle which we have protected for centuries is what has prevented any UK Government from owning or controlling the press.

“It’s surely inconceivable then that we would sanction a foreign government state power to what no UK Government ever has nor would ever do.”

She added: “We can’t ignore that public trust in news, Parliament and the political class has fallen significantly in recent years.

“Allowing foreign governments to own such a critical and sensitive part of our nation would damage public confidence in all of us yet further if it was allowed to happen.”

Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean said: “Nothing less than a complete ban on foreign governments having any role in the governance, ownership or financing of our media is acceptable. It’s a no-brainer.”

Former editor of the Daily Telegraph Lord Moore of Etchingham, who sits as a non-affiliated peer, said of the ban: “If we had had such a rule from the start and such clarity people wouldn’t have had to get into this issue of saying rather difficult truths about many regimes over the world, we would simply be able to say ‘No, sorry, the rule is the rule and that’s that’.”

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