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‘Telegraph Takeover Bid Backed by UAE Doesn’t Matter – Because there’s an Agenda at Every Newspaper’

A former Editor of The Independent provides an inside look at just how much influence the owners of British newspapers – including Rupert Murdoch – have on what gets written

Sheikh Mansour, pictured at the Champions League Final in Istanbul in June 2023, is backing a consortium trying to take over the Telegraph Photo: Mark Pain/Alamy

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Many years ago, I was a junior business reporter on Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times. It had been decided that I was to write that weekend’s main editorial based on an official report castigating Mohamed Al Fayed over the purchase of House of Fraser which included Harrods.

Fayed, it seems, had been deliberately opaque about the true origins of his funding. We were having an editorial meeting, me and the paper’s much more senior executives, about what the leader should say, when who should walk in but Murdoch. We all leapt to attention. He made a gesture for everyone to sit down, and then asked what we were discussing. They said that I was just explaining the importance of the report and that it was going to be the paper’s leader and I was going to write it. Murdoch turned to me, inquisitively. Thanks guys.

Murdoch fixed me a stare. “Son, who cares? Why does it matter?” he inquired softly and slowly. Nobody else said anything. I was on my own. I was sweating but the room felt chilly. Gulp. I blathered about how we could never be too careful, how it was vital that people didn’t lie about the source of their wealth, how we had anti-money laundering rules to prevent this sort of thing, how organised crime was a growing problem and we had to be more on top of it, and drugs and terrorism…

Murdoch looked blank. I could feel the ground opening beneath my feet. Then, a man who was accompanying the press mogul – a tall American in black, shiny, crocodile shoes – said: “Hey, Rupe you remember that Fayed took us for 100 million, down in Texas?” Murdoch turned to him, and said, “You’re right, he did.” He wheeled round to me and added: “Son, write it as hard as you like”. With that, he and his pal walked off.

Rupert Murdoch in London in June 2023
Rupert Murdoch, pictured at his annual party at Spencer House, St James’ Place in London, June 2023

The Sunday Times was my first national newspaper and this was my first introduction to how proprietors secure a product that is to their taste and beliefs.

This was an overt example, where the man himself was present. Most of the time he did not need to be. It occurred subliminally – self-censorship, reporting a story in such a manner that you knew would please the bosses, would stick to an unwritten agenda and earn you an approving nod from on high.

It occurred in the same way at every newspaper where I’ve worked: Sunday Express, Daily Express, Observer, Independent on Sunday, Independent, Evening Standard. Really, it happens everywhere, in every job: you know what the chief thinks and unless you’re desperate to leave you toe the party line. Which is why it is perplexing to read so much guff about the proposed takeover of the Telegraph by a consortium backed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, vice-president of the United Arab Emirates.

The Sheikh also owns Manchester City and, in that regard, his being a member of the UAE government is rarely mentioned; references to him in the football press tend to dwell on his fabulous wealth.

The United Arab Emirates Cannot be Allowed to Whitewash its Way Out of Serious Human Rights Abuses

With the UAE’s ‘World Tolerance Summit’ taking place this week, it is seeking to create a façade of tolerance while crushing dissent – why are the UK and US enabling this?

A football club is very different from a major newspaper. But, honestly, reading the howls of protest from some journalistic quarters you could be forgiven for thinking they are allowed a free hand in everything they write, that they’ve never been told to temper an argument or as I say, have done it themselves, without being instructed?

Perhaps they are, in which case, I must be an oppressed rare species – on my own, wandering through the media landscape, subject to the inability to express myself. I am not, because most articles do not touch the management floor.

There have been occasions, though, when I’ve been encouraged to pursue a subject in which the owner has a ‘special interest’. Again, I ask, has anyone else not experienced the same, and provided what I write is true, is it that bad?

To that list of titles, I could have added another, The National. That’s right, for the last four years I’ve written a weekly column for the UAE newspaper owned by one Sheikh Mansour. Ah, I hear you cry: “he’s told you to write this, you’re under orders.” Not a bit of it. In that period, I’ve had no contact with the Sheikh or his official representatives. I do speak to the paper’s Editor-in-Chief, Mina Al-Oraibi – that’s right a woman in charge of a newspaper, a concept still unfamiliar to those main critics of the Mansour deal, the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and The Times.

One piece I submitted was rejected; post-COVID, a firm of consultants produced a study saying that luxury goods were over, that the outbreak had made us turn our backs on excess. I thought this would be a suitable column topic.

Why the UK Will Keep Rubber-Stamping the United Arab Emirates’ Myth of Tolerance

With the economic fall-out from Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic looming, it is not in the UK Government’s interests to pressure the UAE on its human rights abuses, reports Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Colleagues at the paper disagreed; they had plenty of evidence to show the claim was wrong, that bling was very much alive. I said I would choose another subject. As it was, they were right, the consultancy was wrong. Another piece, on Al Fayed, I quoted him using a profanity against Prince Philip. It had to come out, they said, as, to be fair, it probably would have done in any British-based title.

It may hurt the anti-Mansour investment (and it is an investment, his people are insisting, saying he will only be a ‘passive partner’ in a US-run vehicle) brigade to learn this but in my experience, The National is run along professional lines. It has a newsroom of the sort they would recognise. To my knowledge there is not a UAE commissar sitting alongside Al-Oraibi and her senior team.

It’s staffed too by journalists from across Fleet Street, from the Telegraph, Independent, Daily Mail and others. Its editorial offices in UAE, London and Washington DC are fully manned and well-resourced. I deal regularly with the London bureau and as far as I am aware, the editor, Damien McElroy (ex-Telegraph) is free to cover whatever he likes.

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Because it’s not so tightly constrained and prone to the cycles of advertising as others, The National can keep its website open to all – a breath of fresh air in this age of paywalls and subscriptions. The paper has as its mission ‘The Middle East. Explained’.

That’s its USP, writing about the Middle East, and yes, often providing a UAE slant. Is that awful? It’s where the title hails from, it’s home. It’s no different from London newspapers seeing things through British eyes. No different either from pro-Conservative newspapers seeing things through a pro-Conservative prism. Perish the thought.


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