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Saudi investment in UK newspapers not a problem, says watchdog

Evgeny Lebedev, the billionaire owner of several United Kingdom newspapers and other assets, will not be additionally investigated over his sale to a Saudi investor of stakes in two of his publications, a British regulator ruled on Monday.


The Russian-British businessman had been embroiled in a protracted dispute with the UK government over the sale of parts of The Independent newspaper and the Evening Standard, with the UK claiming partial Saudi ownership may influence editorial freedom. Media regulator the Office of Communications, which is also known as Ofcom, said it could find no evidence of any meddling at the papers following the investment from Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel.

Ofcom, the government-approved regulatory and competition authority that oversees the UK's broadcasting, telecommunications, and postal industry, said no additional investigation was needed. It had been considering referring the matter to the Competition and Markets Authority.

Nicky Morgan, the UK's culture secretary, said the government will not appeal Ofcom's ruling.

Ofcom said at the conclusion of its probe that a "strong incentive and ability to influence the editorial stance of the two newspapers would have been visible by now" but added that "we cannot, of course, rule out any suggestion that the buyers might in future, perhaps with the other shareholders' consent, seek to present more positive coverage of Saudi matters."

Abuljadayel bought 30 percent of the parent group of the Evening Standard earlier this year, through a Cayman Islands company. Initially, his identity was unknown. A year earlier, he had bought a similar-sized stake in The Independent.

But Ofcom said the newspapers had not changed their often-critical coverage of Saudi Arabia following the investment.

"The risk to accuracy or freedom of expression in newspapers is not, in our view, significantly greater where a Saudi consortium takes a 30 percent stake in a newspaper that is 60 percent controlled by an Anglo-Russian, than where that newspaper was 100 percent controlled by an Anglo-Russian".

A spokesperson for ESI Media, the umbrella group that owns The Independent and the Evening Standard, said in a statement: "We continue to take the editorial independence of both our titles very seriously. We are pleased, but not at all surprised, that the secretary of state has agreed with the conclusions of (Ofcom that) there was no evidence whatsoever of interference by the investors in our editorial operations."

During its probe, Ofcom heard from The National Union of Journalists, which said its members among staff at the papers had insisted that coverage of Saudi Arabia and its allies had continued to be "accurate and tenacious in its pursuit of truth and accountability over human rights abuses and war crimes".

Christian Broughton, editor of The Independent, told Ofcom he had no contact with Saudi shareholders and was not aware of their opinions on any of the stories he had covered.

The Press Gazette said Lebedev had said the Ofcom report had "completely vindicated" the papers' editorial integrity. In a tweet, he criticized the government's "poor judgment and errors" in probing the issue, saying it was a "waste of public money, and ours".


Published : September 19, 2019

By : China Daily Asia News Network