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Rishi to the Rescue: How the Prime Minister ‘Moved Heaven and Earth to Help the Conservative Press’

The Government went to bat for Conservative media titans to quickly block the Telegraph takeover bid – yet more pressing reforms often take years to progress

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rushed through legislation to stop the Abu-Dhabi-backed consortium from buying the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. Photo: Imageplotter / Alamy

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An Abu Dhabi-backed consortium wants to buy the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, News International titles, and some journalists from the Telegraph itself, go mad. Conservative politicians also declare their opposition. Rishi Sunak rushes through legislation to prevent such a takeover from occurring. Deal over. 

If ever there was proof of the power of the press to get what they want, this is it. That needs rephrasing: the power of the Conservative press to get what they want, when there is a Conservative Prime Minister only too happy to please, in this, General Election year. 

It’s remarkable how Sunak moved heaven and earth to appease the proprietors of the Daily Mail and The Times and Sun titles. 

Other interest groups can campaign for years for perfectly sound, bona fide, necessary, reform to reach the statute books. Often, to no avail – reasonable as the new measure is, vital as it is, they are kept waiting. 

Yet, along come the big beasts of Lord Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch, aided and abetted by some noisy Conservatives (some of them, anxious to curry favour with the influential newspapers), and the Government crumbles. Appallingly, senior figures in the Government were said to be in favour of the Abu Dhabi bid, believing it would cement relations and lead to further investment from that super-rich country. No, the Conservative media titans are against, so against the government shall be. 

Rupert Murdoch, seen above in London in June 2023, was against the deal and wants the Spectator. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

No matter that Rothermere and Murdoch had their reasons for kiboshing the Abu Dhabi purchase. Rothermere harbours a desire to own the Telegraph, while Murdoch wants the Spectator, also part of the Telegraph stable. They did declare their interest to their readers, usually towards the end of news reports regarding the progress of the campaign.

They devoted plenty of space to the importance of upholding free speech and defending human rights. The giveaway as to their true motive was, surely, that claims by the consortium that Abu Dhabi was only a ‘passive’ investor were largely ignored. Likewise, the suggestion that this marriage could see the resurrection of a device implemented when another foreign newspaper takeover occurred was similarly brushed aside.

That was when Murdoch bought Times Newspapers and a separate, independent board was installed to act as an objective cut-off on key matters. This time around, with his eyes set on owning the Spectator, Murdoch was seemingly not prepared to countenance a repetition.

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

What’s also telling is that plenty of British assets have fallen into foreign hands, many of them to sovereign wealth funds, down the years without the raising of barely a squeak by the same media or MPs. It’s as if the much-touted phrase, Britain is ‘open for business’ has been taken literally to also mean ‘Britain is for sale’.

Assets to have gone overseas include:

There are numerous examples of all sorts of assets tracing their ultimate ownership abroad. Grocery, retail, hospitality, and fashion brands, many of them historically and iconically ‘British’, have been targeted by foreigners and their money men.  

Occasionally there have been protests but they have usually died down. Cadbury’s going to the Americans was an especially emotive one. Royal Mail, no less, may soon join the National Lottery with Czech owners. The newspaper that reports at length on these deals, the Financial Times, is owned by the Japanese. The only sale that attracted a similar amount of column inches, was arguably that of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia, but, like the rest, it went through. 


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The pattern is familiar: there’s a bid, there is some disquiet expressed by the employees, unions and stakeholders, then the offer is raised again and perhaps again until the owner’s expectations are met and it’s accepted and the fury, such as it is, falls away. 

Fears about Chinese and Russian influence, together with uncertainty surrounding treatments for Covid, saw the government pass the National Security and Investment Act, or NSIA, of 2021, giving the Cabinet Office the ability to intervene and block a transaction on national security grounds. It covers 17 sectors, most of them to do with defence, tech, medicine, bioscience, data and AI.

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The idea was to stop the asset and/or its intellectual property, the know-how, falling into enemy hands. At first sight, the figures are impressive – the Act is wheeled out regularly. There were more than 1,000 ‘mandatory notifications’ – the bidders in these sectors must inform the Government – in 2022, the latest and first year to be reported. But 95% of these were cleared unconditionally at the initial screening phase. 

Only 5% were subject to in-depth scrutiny and most of these received conditional approval. However, five deals were stymied completely, of which four involved companies with Chinese ownership and one a Russian oligarch.

Another 14 were approved subject to conditions, and these mostly involved Chinese owners. The restrictions were imposed to safeguard national security, including a UK Government attendee at board meetings, external monitoring, commitments for the IP to remain in the UK, and guarantees to continue to supply specified UK contractors such as the Ministry of Defence or an emergency service.


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The NSIA might well have been deployed in the Telegraph case. The sectors where it applies are broadly defined and doubtless, a skilled lawyer could have made a case for the paper’s inclusion. 

It never reached that stage. Sunak leapt into action and brought forward a new piece of legislation, just to make sure the Abu Dhabi bid perished. Rothermere and Murdoch got their way. The irony is that they may only have made the path easier for another bidder, Sir Paul Marshall owner of Unherd and GB News. Marshall, born in Ealing, is definably British. How the media barons stop him remains to be seen. 

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