The UK government voiced concerns when a Saudi investor bought a stake in some major British newspapers, but analysts believe the debate could be all just part of a bid to score political points
The British media scene is facing controversy as concerns brew over whether national publications are being influenced by international investors, including some from Saudi Arabia.
In June, then-United Kingdom Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright issued an intervention notice against Lebedev Holdings – the parent company of London’s Evening Standard – and Independent Digital News and Media after an investor with “strong links” to the Saudi state bought shares in both companies.
Two years ago, Saudi investor Sultan Mohamed 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.
Wright asked the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate “jurisdictional and competition matters” and broadcast regulator Ofcom to look at the public interest considerations relating to the accurate presentation of news and free expression.
In a twist in the tale, the UK government has since failed to complete a full investigation on time, and the CMA has ruled that ESI Media – which represents both newspapers – has not breached anti-competition laws.
Ofcom submitted its report on the case to the Secretary of State on August 23 and the findings are yet to be made public.
As the case rumbles on, experts are divided on the consequences of increased foreign investment into the British media industry.
Wes Schwalje, COO of Dubai-headquartered research company Tahseen Consulting, says the concerns about Abuljadayel’s investment in ESI Media are “an emerging form of economic nationalism which are hopefully not a externality of the political nationalism that has motivated Brexit”.
Complete editorial independence is formally enshrined in an agreement by all shareholders, who have no influence on our editorial output
Schwalje claims that emerging ownership structures in the media – and other sectors that have attracted high levels of foreign investment from the region – have become a convenient target for British politicians looking to score what he terms ‘political capital’.
“Globally, journalism is threatened by declining advertising revenues and questions about institutional independence due to the growing incidence of misinformation… but the unwavering editorial independence and freedom of expression of the Evening Standard and The Independent under the Lebedevs is perhaps the best counterfactual to these concerns,” says the COO.
In his scathing assessment, Schwalje says the Culture Secretary’s intervention appears motivated by personal policy preferences “cloaked in legal language” about public interest considerations about freedom of expression and competition.
Schwalje adds: “The fact that an investor comes from a country which ranks low on freedom of the press does not mean that an individual cannot act from a place of principle.
“The marketplace for ideas is inextricably linked to the marketplace for readers – media outlets which are purveyors of politicised misinformation, sensationalist and fake news, and poor journalism will soon face the commercial reality of automated fact checking and artificial intelligence based algorithms that downgrade their content.”
Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the UK’s University of Birmingham, stresses that questions over the foreign ownership of media are not a new phenomenon.
“For decades, there has been a question about the independence of privately-owned newspapers – namely, does it serve public interests or the private owners? I think that’s still a prominent question, when you consider that one of Britain’s major broadsheets (The Daily Telegraph) is in the hands of two billionaire Barclay brothers.
The Independent is renowned across the world for exposing injustice, wherever we find it
“The Independent was in the hands of Russian businessmen like Lebedev – and still is. In fact, only the UK’s The Guardian newspaper is owned by a trust,” says the professor.
In the case of The Independent, the professor says Ofcom must look to explore transparency. “Is there transparency in the process in which the buyer of the stake of Lebedev Holdings represents the Saudi government?” he adds.
Lucas also suggests that the track record of Saudi Arabian government publications should be examined.
“Have the kingdom’s media vehicles appeared to be objective in the past or have they been compromised?” he asks. “I would not want to prejudge Ofcom by making a judgment, but there are obviously areas that require investigation.”
The professor raises the point that The Independent is “not the force of international reporting” that it was even 15 years ago, when it was known for its strong opposition of the Iraq War.
“Today The Independent has no specific Middle East bureaus to speak of, as it did back then. Robert Fisk is the site’s one regional correspondent, and he writes opinion pieces rather than detailed reportage,” Lucas says.
“That said, The Independent is still a prominent publication, which purports to have international coverage so I think Ofcom would investigate the sale to any government – not just the Saudis.”
However, Lucas says the Saudi media investment has faced more scrutiny than other government deals may have done due to recent turns of events.
“The Saudi dimension has been elevated because of the Khashoggi murder last autumn, the ongoing Yemeni conflict and the court judgment regarding British arms to the Saudis.
“In the US, the Saudis actually shut down one of their major public outlets because of the political and legal pressure. The scrutiny of the deal stems from the dynamics of Middle East politics and specifically the Saudi Arabian profile right now.”
Lucas also highlights a wider question of media ownership.
“In most Western countries, there is a clear division between public ownership versus private ownership, such as the BBC and privately-owned papers,” he says.
Referring to government-influenced papers such as Al Arabiya in Saudi Arabia and Press TV in Iran, Lucas says “the western model is not necessarily the model in the Middle East and Iran where Middle Eastern governments effectively run their own press outlets. There is a distinction in the Middle East approach to media from that of Western Europe, and the Saudis happen to be at the intersection of it.”
In a relevant recent ruling, the UK’s Ofcom fined the Russian news channel RT £200,000 ($245,502) for serious failures to comply with its independent broadcasting rules – and required the channel to broadcast a summary of its findings to viewers.
Schwalje insists that “similar to other global media companies, both The Independent and Evening Standard have codes of editorial conduct which are rooted in independence, integrity, and high journalistic standards which establish an editorial policy free from commercial, political, or ownership influence.”
In a statement to Arabian Business, The Independent newspaper reiterated its staunch position on editorial integrity: “We received a minority investment from a private investor from Saudi Arabia in 2017. Complete editorial independence is formally enshrined in an agreement by all shareholders, who have no influence on our editorial output. The Independent is renowned across the world for exposing injustice, wherever we find it.”
In the context of the UK’s strict media standards, Schwalje says critics of the ESI Media deal who say that British news organisations have become reliant on international investors that “prioritise political and commercial interests at the expense of editorial independence” are bordering upon “demagoguery”.
However, the COO suggests that as the business of The Independent and Evening Standard increasingly migrates online, “it might try to preempt future concerns about its ownership structure’s impact on editorial integrity and independence by following in the footsteps of Facebook in forming an independent oversight board”.