Andrew Neil on the UAE's Attempt to Buy The Spectator
A brief break from American politics to explain what's going on
Allow if you will a brief respite from 2024 politics in America for an update on a major media situation on the other side of the Atlantic, namely the attempted sale of The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph. Andrew Neil, the chairman of The Spectator, sat down with Victoria Derbyshire of BBC Newsnight to discuss this yesterday, and I hope you take the time to read and understand what’s going on and why there are concerns about this sale. Here’s Derbyshire’s preface:
The story so far? The billionaire who bought Manchester City in 2008, Sheikh Mansour, deputy prime minister of the UAE, now wants to buy the Daily Telegraph and Spectator magazine in a joint venture with a US investment partner under the name RedBird IMI. The publications, both founded nearly 200 years ago, are among Britain’s most influential, especially on the right of politics. Critics fear if the pair are owned by a nation where the government tightly controls the media, editorial freedom will be severely limited.
The battle for the title started last year, when RedBird IMI paid off the £1 billion debt of outgoing owners, the Barclay brothers, in exchange for the publications. But before the deal was completed, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Lucy Frazer issued a Public Interest Intervention Notice, pausing the deal citing the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion. The notice means regulators, Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority are preparing reports on the risks posed by the takeover reports, which are due on Frazer’s desk tomorrow. She can then decide whether or not to block the bid. Then yesterday, Miss Frazer announced that she was minded to issue a second Public Interest Intervention Notice following concerns over a corporate restructure at RedBird IMI. But that isn’t necessarily bad news for the takeover bid.
The public face of the RedBird IMI bid is ex-CNN journalist Jeff Zucker. He has asserted that if he took over the titles, they would be given complete editorial independence, with an editorial charter guaranteeing this. And we did ask Jeff Zucker from RedBird for an interview, but he was not available. In a statement, the organisation said: ‘IMI is a passive investor in the company that will own the telegraph and as such, will have no involvement in the management or operations of the newspaper. Redbird IMI has made legal commitments to the government that it will set up an editorial charter and trust to protect the editorial independence of the Telegraph and presumably the Spectator as well. And they have plans to make significant investments in the business.’
Let’s talk to the Chairman of The Spectator, Andrew Neil, who hasn’t spoken about the bid until now. You want the government to block this bid, bearing in mind that statement we’ve just had from them. What are your concerns?
Andrew Neil: Well, my main concern is that the people bankrolling this are the UAE, United Arab Emirates. They’re a government. And the idea that government should own newspapers and magazines in Britain, I think, is absurd. They’re not just a government, they’re an undemocratic government. They’re a dictatorship. The UAE is a terribly successful place. I’ve done business there, but it’s not a democratic government. We’re a democracy. Our publications are part of the democratic process. How could we be owned by an undemocratic government? And it’s particularly important for The Spectator. The Spectator was founded 200 years ago, to fight for the extension of the franchise to give more people the vote. Are we seriously going to contemplate that in 2024? We’re going to be owned by people who run a government where nobody has the vote.
So why don’t you believe Jeff Zucker’s statement when he says the UAE will be a passive investor and there will be no involvement in the management or operations? RedBird IMI has made legal legal commitments to the government that it will set up an editorial charter and trust to protect the editorial independence.
Well, he who pays the piper gets to choose the tune and the people paying the piper here is the UAE. They’ve supplied 75 per cent of the funds for this deal to go ahead. So the idea that they are just going to shell out hundreds of millions of pounds and then just disappear, I think is for the birds, that’s not going to happen. But nor does it give us any great comfort that Jeff Zucker would be running it. Now I’ve met him. He’s a genial chap. He’s a very impressive broadcasting executive. That’s his background. He ran NBC, a big American network. He knows nothing about Britain. He knows nothing about print. He knows nothing about newspapers, and he knows nothing about magazines. And yet he’s-
He’s been a journalist for, what, 35 years? 30 years?
He’s been a business executive. That’s a different matter. He’s never worked in newspapers and he doesn’t know about magazines and he doesn’t know about the particular history of The Spectator. I don’t think he’d ever heard of The Spectator until they bid for it, which makes it what it’s been and why it’s lasted for 200 years. So the idea that these two vital vehicles of mainstream centre-right thought should be owned by Arab money and controlled out of New York by a left-wing Democrat, beggars belief.
How do you know he’s a Democrat?
Did you see CNN when he ran it during the Trump years?
How do you know he’s a Democrat?
Because he is. There’s no doubt about that. He’s a Democrat.
He’s never told anyone how he votes.
I mean, there’s no question he’s a Democrat. He turned CNN from a mainstream BBC type broadcaster into a rabid anti-Trump anti-Republican vehicle. Everybody knows that that’s coming, he boasted this.
This is what he said in an interview in November about it. He said, ‘we always believed that our most important job was to report the news and stand up for the truth. Some people wanted to paint that as anti-Trump. We never, ever set out to do that or saw that as a strategy. We saw it as pro-truth.’
Oh, he saw it that way. Look, covering Trump is not easy. I’ve done it myself.
Should the government be stepping in because you don’t want to be owned by a left-wing Democrat?
No, the government should be stepping in because we shouldn’t be owned by a foreign government, any kind of government, particularly a dictatorship. I mean, what would you think? What would people think if the British government said, ‘oh, I think we’ll own the Telegraph, I think we’ll own The Spectator.’ The very concept is ridiculous.
On the point of who should run us and how we should be run, I’m not speaking as a regulator. I’m not speaking as the government. I’m speaking as someone who for 20 years has been the custodian of The Spectator. I’ve looked after its editorial independence, to make sure the editor is independent and that we’re faithful to what has made us what we are over 200 years. I do not believe that he is a fit and proper person to do that. He’s just not equipped. He’s not qualified. But he could run the BBC! But he couldn’t run The Spectator.
Are you saying there are things that you would not be able to write about? That your editors, your journalists on The Spectator would not be able to write about under the ownership of RedBird IMI.
Well, I don’t know because I won’t be there. You know, if RedBird takes it over, I’ll be gone. And it could be that Fraser Nelson will be gone, too. He can speak for himself.
But you will quit if they succeed in this takeover bid?
Yes, because I don’t believe that our editorial independence could be guaranteed. Look, I was a Rupert Murdoch editor. I had independent trustee editors that were meant to protect my independence. The only time they ever intervened was when they tried to fire me. The trustees, not Rupert Murdoch, the trustees. These are Potemkin village things of doing it. I mean, he’s [Zucker] asked me to be a trustee. I’ve turned it down because he appoints them. He can fire them. He could be fired by the UAE at any moment. They’re the guys with the money. So the idea that there’s any kind of protection in this fake trusteeship: it doesn’t work.
How do you think the government have handled this thus far?
I think the government have been all over the place. I mean, at one stage the government thought we were part of the Telegraph Group, and we’re not: we’re a separate company. At one stage we thought we were part of this protective order. It turns out we have no protections at all. The Spectator has been hung out to dry. You said in the introduction that we would also have an editorial independence committee. No we won’t. That’s only for the Telegraph.
Who’s hung you out to dry?
Well, we’ve been hung out to dry by everybody, by the Barclay brothers who didn’t pay their debts, by the bank that didn’t care what happened to us as long as they got their money back. And by the government, which has left us in a state of limbo and hasn’t even managed to regulate things properly.
Which you’ve been in now for seven months. What’s that been like?
It’s been terrible. It’s been purgatory because it’s been very difficult to run the business and deal with all the advisers that have been crawling over us for the sales process. At one stage we had more advisers than we had employees. We’re only now beginning to turn the ship around again.
But isn’t this capitalism? This is free trade: you support that, your magazine supports that. This is Global Britain, isn’t it?
The Spectator believes in the market economy. And as someone who studied economics at the university of Adam Smith, I can tell you that all market economies have to be regulated and there are regulations in place. And in other countries there are regulations in place in France, for example, that would stop foreign governments from owning major media assets.
Well, there are regulators looking at it now.
Which is why I’m arguing, although The Spectator is not covered by that. But if they stop the Telegraph deal, The Spectator deal won’t go ahead either. Let me just ask you this: if this was allowed to go ahead and the UAE is allowed to own the Telegraph and The Spectator, how long before some Chinese billionaire, acting on behalf of President Xi, tries to buy the Times when Rupert Murdoch goes to the great newsroom in the sky? Or the Daily Mirror? President Putin, his people might try to buy it. You want the British media to be owned by foreign dictators?
If the RedBird IMI deal is blocked, the beneficiary could be the bid led by Paul Marshall, early investor in GB News, which you famously left after three months. Are you saying you’d rather have him?
I wouldn’t be keen on Paul Marshall either, but that’s my personal view. I’m not enforcing that. Paul Marshall is a British citizen who lives in Britain. I don’t think he would know how to run The Spectator, or the Telegraph, but that’s just a personal view. There are plenty of other people who could come forward in on it too, and I would rather take my chances in a sales process than see this be handed over to Americans who know nothing about us, bankrolled by Arabs, by the UAE, who come from a non-democratic regime.
Thank you very much for talking to our audience.