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Telegraph Media Group: Proposed Sale to RedBird IMI

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on the proposed sale of the Telegraph Media Group to RedBird IMI.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for tabling the urgent question for the second time in as many days. This is a media-focused day for me, as I will take the Media Bill through its remaining stages straight after the urgent question, so forgive me if one has made me insufficiently prepared for the other, or vice versa.

I am in the frustrating circumstance that I can say only what is publicly known and nothing of the specifics in answer to questions about the ownership of the Telegraph Media Group, which contains two of the world’s greatest newspapers—The Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Telegraph—and, in The Spectator, the oldest surviving weekly magazine in the world.

As hon. Members will be aware, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has issued a public interest intervention notice in respect of the anticipated acquisition of the group by RB Investco Ltd, further to the notice issued in November in respect of the RedBird IMI media joint venture, which remains in force. She is leading this process and examining it in great detail and with great care, but it is a quasi-judicial process, involving the Competition and Markets Authority, which looks at jurisdictional and competition matters, and Ofcom, which will be reporting to her on public interest considerations in relation to the media, expressly accurate presentation of the news and free expression of opinion. Both reports will be returned on 11 March.

My right hon. and learned Friend, as a very assiduous and diligent KC, is making sure that I, as Media Minister, am absolutely excluded from the process, because that is what it demands. I am not permitted to know about the scrutiny that is under way, or to interfere with it. She is also not permitted to take into account any political or presentational concerns in her deliberations, and we would not wish to cause there to be any chink of light here that would leave the process open to judicial review. That leaves me in an unenviable position: I face understandable expert probing by hon. Members, to whom I can offer no answer beyond what is in the public domain. However, this urgent question is as much an opportunity for hon. Members to make their concerns clear and their views known, as it is an opportunity for me to answer them. So I say: be heard, loud and clear.

Straight after this urgent question, I will take the Media Bill through its remaining stages and make the case for that legislation in broad terms. I will argue that a free media, not interfered with by Government or indeed Governments, able to articulate and reflect a broad range of views, free to speak and create, and able to project to the world what democracy, a plurality of views and debate truly mean, is something important that we should value. In many respects, it underpins what we mean by a free society. Of course, we all know that; it is something that we repeat, automaton-like, in a way that risks giving rise to complacency. However, as I watch the actions of authoritarian states in these times of turbulence; as I see western democracies in a knot of angst over our values; and as I see our populations question, from the safety of these shores, whether our values still matter, I am reminded of the need to make that case again and again.

I cannot speak to the specific media ownership question—I know hon. Members will understand that, and will help me keep within the tramlines—but I can speak about media freedom; the need for media to be separate from political and Government interference; the importance of a British voice, domestically and internationally; and the pride we can feel in media institutions, such as those in the Telegraph Media Group, some of which date back two centuries and drove changes in this nation as profound as the Great Reform Act. To this day, those who write for those institutions ask questions of us all with a rare inquisitiveness and preoccupation with truth. [Interruption.] I shall finish shortly. I will be hearing—

Order. Please do not tell me what you are going to do. I am in charge of the time. You are way over, and I expect you now to finish quickly.

I apologise, Mr Speaker, for over-speaking. I will listen to the points made, in the broadest of terms, and I suspect that I may agree with many of them.

Thank you for granting this important urgent question, Mr Speaker. The Minister hits the nail on the head when she says that this is about freedom from Government interference, although it is quite something for us to start this urgent question knowing that we will get no answer to any of our questions. We have a proud tradition of a fiercely independent press in our country—a press who hold us to account in this place, and shine a light on misbehaviour and misdoings here and abroad. Yet a paper of record, The Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator, the longest-running magazine in the world and my personal podcast of choice, will be purchased by a foreign state. The concern here is about not foreign ownership, but foreign state ownership; in this situation, we cannot separate sheikh and state. Those are our concerns.

More broadly, I worry that we have allowed our media—critical national infrastructure for our democracy—to fall between the cracks. Our Defending Democracy Taskforce looks only at electoral concerns, and the National Security and Investment Act 2021 deals with 17 sectors, none of which is the media. We therefore have no protections against this sort of situation.

I have four questions that I hope the Minister will at least attempt to answer—I appreciate the restrictions that are in place. First, are there any examples from around the world of a nation with differing media values, to put it politely, acquiring the newspaper of another country? Secondly, will the Government commit to a national security investigation of these purchases? Thirdly, do the Government not recognise that their intervention in the United Arab Emirates’ purchase of Vodafone sets a precedent allowing them to intervene in this case? Finally, will they look either to extend the Defending Democracy Taskforce or those 17 sectors, to ensure that we can protect our media? We are dealing with something that will make us vulnerable not for five or 10 years, but for the rest of our lives, and we cannot afford for our media to be undermined.

I thank my hon. Friend for her questions. As she is aware, a public interest intervention notice has been issued in this case, which means that I am not able to speak to a number of the points that will likely be raised. However, powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 allow us to look into acquisitions of this nature and to examine issues of media freedom of expression. We also have powers under the National Security Act 2023; the Cabinet Office has a role there. That will allow the Culture Secretary to look at some of the questions that my hon. Friend raises.

There will now be an investigation by not only the Competition and Markets Authority, but Ofcom, which will look into all these questions in great detail. That will allow the Secretary of State to make a judgment on what action she takes next. There may potentially be a longer investigation, after which she could be offered particular remedies, or could prevent a transaction. However, at this stage, I cannot speculate on what action she is likely to take.

I am frustrated with the Minister. I want to thank her for her answer, but frankly, it was not an answer. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, asked perfectly reasonable questions, which did not go into the specifics and zoomed out to the general, yet we still have no answers. A strong and independent free press is a cornerstone of democracy. We have a long history of that in the UK; The Spectator is the oldest magazine in the world. It is the responsibility of Government, regardless of their political persuasion or the newspaper under discussion, to safeguard the freedom to scrutinise, to expose wrongdoing and to speak truth to power.

We on these Benches recognise the legitimate public interest concerns raised over the proposed acquisition of the Telegraph Media Group, including about the accurate presentation of news, free expression of opinion in newspapers and the competition issues. I welcome the fact that the Government have asked further questions, and I await the conclusions of the investigations by the Competition and Markets Authority and Ofcom in full. But The Telegraph has been up for sale for months—the Secretary of State issued her first public interest intervention notice on 30 November. This process is ongoing. Employees at The Telegraph and The Spectator have been left in limbo, and senior journalists have expressed significant concerns.

Can the Minister tell the House why the Secretary of State has granted an extension to the deadline by which she expects to receive reports from Ofcom and the CMA in relation to the PIIN? I am sure she cannot, but I am just going to ask anyway. Can the Minister tell the House—this is a general one, so maybe she can—whether, in the light of the proposed sale, she has any plans to review the existing rules on media ownership? Has she or the Secretary of State considered that or had any conversations with colleagues about it?

With a general election approaching, in a significant year for democracy across the world and with record numbers of people going to the polls, the freedom of the press has never been more important. Now is not the time for the Government to have no answers or to be asleep at the wheel.

I thank the hon. Lady for her rather hyperbolic intervention. We are having a debate because two public interest intervention notices have been issued. The Government take their powers in this respect seriously, and the Competition and Markets Authority and Ofcom will be given the space and time to look into all these issues in detail. Those notices were issued because the Secretary of State takes the issues of media freedom and the ownership of important British media institutions extremely seriously.

I therefore ask the hon. Lady to help us. Those investigations are under way; we must not prejudice them and must ensure they are watertight. The important question of media ownership is something that all Members of this House care about. It would be regrettable if I were to say anything in this Chamber that should prejudice that process, so I say again to the hon. Lady that action has been taken, it is something the Government take seriously, and I ask her to let the process take its course.

It is hugely new for us to be told that we will not get our questions answered at the Dispatch Box. We are used to that happening anyway, but it is good to be told that it is a waste of our time being here in the first place.

To press on with not being answered, I say to the Minister that I and 28 others, across all parties, wrote a letter to her Department specifying that we were all opposed to this potential takeover. We made it clear that we are not opposed to it because we dislike that particular Government—although I have to say that that may well be a feature. Rather, we would oppose it if the French Government wished to buy the newspapers, or even if this Government decided they would control them. We would oppose that on the basis that it would trample right across the idea of freedom of the press.

Following the notice that has gone to the CMA, I simply ask the Minister whether she would ask the Secretary of State to create a new PIIN on the basis that RedBird IMI has twice disrupted the Government’s efforts to properly scrutinise the purchase. Particularly with the idea of debt being loaded into the purchase, we need a further detailed investigation. I would be grateful if the Minister did that, because this could easily turn into a disaster for this Government.

I did not say I would give no answers; I said I would be able to give general answers, and my right hon. Friend will understand why. These are very precise processes that must be kept watertight, and I would not want to do anything to prejudice them or the Secretary of State’s ability to act in a way that is in the interests of this country and the media. This is not a waste of time. It is an opportunity for this House to make its voice and opinions known on what is a controversial issue of great public interest—an issue that we as a Government are very interested in.

My right hon. Friend also makes the important point that his concern is not about the Government in this particular case, but about Government ownership in principle. It is something I appreciate and understand, and I am sure it will be in the Secretary of State’s mind.

When hosting COP28, Sultan al-Jaber said that there was “no science” behind the climate change emergency. The Sultan is head of the UAE media council, and influential in the Telegraph takeover. I worked for many years as a journalist; I understand that democracy requires plurality in the media landscape. Sadly, in the UK the vast majority of titles are already skewed to the right—in Scotland, as we know, half the population support independence, but only one title supports that position. We do not want the situation worsening. I am in favour of a free, diverse and vibrant press ecosystem, and not in favour of a newspaper being owned as a loss-making public relations arm of a foreign state through access to our daily news cycle. Does the Minister agree that allowing the UAE to take over The Telegraph would be unhealthy in principle for our democracy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising an issue of principle, which I perfectly understand, as something that I speak about in relation to the BBC, and how it must have editorial independence from the Government. As a principle, I would be concerned about Government ownership of any media institution, but as he will be aware, I can speak only of principles.

When the wonderful Taylor Swift discovered that her back catalogue had been bought by a purchaser of whom she disapproved, she began to render it worthless by re-recording all her previous hits. Is that an example that journalists at The Spectator and The Telegraph might do well to follow?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his mischievous suggestion. I could not possibly comment on it, but I am sure that it has been heard.

I am reeling from the comparison of Telegraph hacks with Taylor Swift. If the Minister cannot answer questions, maybe we could use this as an exercise in issuing some concerns. The National Union of Journalists’ concerns are obviously about jobs, but they are also about future editorial independence. It behoves the Minister and the Government to look at what sanctions could be used in future if agreements are reached but not kept to—Murdoch is the best example of that. In addition, I wonder whether it is time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) said, for a proper review of media ownership.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for speaking on behalf of the NUJ and for raising what this means for media plurality and the ability of journalists to hold us here to account. I agree on those generalities, but I am afraid I cannot say anything more about the specifics of this case, as he will be aware. Once the process is over, I am sure there will be questions to go back to about how we best look into how our media is owned.

For what it is worth, the proposal is said to enhance the competitive landscape, not diminish it. Does the Minister agree that this sort of decision must be made according to legal principles, not politics? It is not appropriate to consider political posturing from the left or right when deciding this important matter, which is part of the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial functions.

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to say that the Secretary of State will be under specific obligations to consider this matter without politics. Both the CMA and Ofcom will look at this carefully from a regulatory point of view. We as politicians should also have a right to some broad views about media ownership as we consider those questions. The Secretary of State is the departmental owner of culture, media and sport, and will have some considerations about how to ensure a dynamic media landscape. I am sure that she will carefully apply her legal brain to the application of those principles.

I think the House sees me for what I am, which is a shy and retiring Member. For years I have been teased in The Telegraph at the hands of Mr Alan Cochrane, and more recently in The Spectator. But that is democracy; it is the nature of the beast, and it is free speech. I agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) that there is a national security implication. I think that the mood of the House is that this is simply not on—we all agree on that. The message should be passed back to the Secretary of State and to the Government that we will not wear this.

I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind me saying so, but I believe that when I last saw him, he was on his way to a Spectator Burns night party, so I hope the relationship is warm and cordial now, with no unkindness towards him from that magazine. As I said at the outset, this is a useful exercise in making the views of this House known on this matter. It is an important opportunity for Members to have their say, and I hope that they will be heard.

I must say I was amused by the Minister’s opening remarks, because I cannot recall any judicial review ever being triggered by statements in Parliament—not once. However, given that she wants a statement, not a question, in the event that the CMA and Ofcom report finds conditionally in favour in any way, she must not take the Murdoch ownership of The Times as an example, because since the sacking of its editor, that has been a failure, not a success.

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the decision-making process is not mine. I will not be the person to make a judgment call on this matter. The CMA and Ofcom have until 11 March to issue their initial report. At that stage, undertakings can be accepted or a second stage can be opened. I am sure that all these questions will be in the Secretary of State’s mind as she makes that judgment.

I thank the Minister very much for her answers, which are always very helpful, and we appreciate that. Can she outline if measures can and will be put in place to secure editorial freedom in the long term? We look to a nation with completely different ideals, but which has capacity to shape the media narrative and public information. How can we make sure that we retain trust?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, a public notice has been issued on this matter. Ofcom will look expressly at accurate presentation of the news and free expression of opinion when it makes its reports and judgments known. I hope that will give him some assurance about how the media considerations will be looked at, not just the competition aspects.

I fully understand the limitations on what my hon. Friend can say. Having covered for her until a few weeks ago as media Minister, I was given no inside information about this matter, either. However, she will be aware that it is now over five years since the Ofcom report to the Secretary of State that said that the internet has transformed the way that news is provided and consumed, and that there will need to be a fundamental review of the media ownership regime. Does she agree with that, and can she say whether the Government will undertake that review?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his expert cover for me. We discussed that subject in our handover, when he told me that there was no information that he could share because he was assiduous in his role and made sure that he was not involved in areas that he should not be. He asked about future ownership questions. He will be aware that we are debating the Media Bill after this urgent question. We have looked at some issues in relation to media, in particular the changing media landscape and how the internet has changed it. That has not covered all the issues that will be raised by this acquisition, but I am sure that once that the Media Bill has completed all its stages, we will be able to look afresh at the other holes in the landscape.

I appreciate that there is a limit to what the Minister can say about the potential sale of The Daily Telegraph to owners backed by the UAE, but are there any lessons for media freedom that the Government might learn from the creation of university branch campuses in the UAE, and what that has meant for freedom of speech?

I am afraid that is not a subject about which I know a great deal. I shall happily look into it and see whether there are any implications for our media landscape, but I cannot comment in relation to this specific acquisition.

Does the Minister agree that the fact that we are in this position shows that clarity is needed about media ownership rules? We need a presumption against sovereign foreign states acquiring strategic UK media assets to further their influence, just as there should one be against acquisition by a foreign oligarch who might not have a commitment to the media. We need some certainty about how and where such an intervention can be made, and not purely on competition grounds.

That point has been raised by a number of hon. Members. We have tools for these kinds of acquisitions, as can be seen in the public interest intervention notices that we have imposed in this case. I reassure Members that we are not totally naked on this question; there are tools, under the Enterprise Act, that allow us to look into it. I am sure that once the process is over, we will be able to look back and say whether any further action or intervention is required.

As owners expect to have influence over editors and the editorial line, why do we not have a policy of ruling out all Government ownership of such organisations, which would make it much simpler?

I thank my right hon. Friend for making that simple point. It is one that I am sure will be considered once this case has passed.

Were a media outlet in an authoritarian state, or indeed any other state, to be threatened with foreign ownership, would the Minister responsible be as scrupulous in her answers as my hon. Friend has so properly been with us today?

I am sure that many Members are, like me, concerned about foreign ownership of our institutions and businesses. Our national resilience, strategic independence and critical infrastructure, as well as our media, are vital. To quote the well-known album, how do we ensure that we do not end up selling England by the pound?

As I have said in answers to similar questions, we have powers to look into some of those investment and ownership questions, and they do not relate just to the media. We now have much broader national security and investment powers in relation to questions such as these and to other areas in which there is a critical national interest in the ownership of a particular asset. It would be wrong for Members to leave the Chamber with the belief that there are no such powers and that all these acquisitions can go ahead regardless of security and other implications.

The Minister is absolutely right: Ofcom can apply a test, which it already applies, to broadcast licences. Does she agree that, given the changes in the media landscape, that should be rolled over to news websites and publishers that have significant scale?

We are looking at how we regulate online content alongside standard broadcasting and other media output. One outcome of the mid-term review is that some of the BBC’s online material will be considered in the same way as its other output. Those are all questions that the Department is looking into to ensure that media regulation and legislation are fit for what is a rapidly changing media landscape.

It is clear that paying off the debt means that RedBird IMI has control over the titles. Indeed, it has already transferred the ownership of that debt to a new UK entity. Should not the Secretary of State also issue a PIIN on the debt to ensure that she retains control of the situation?

My hon. Friend will be aware that this is the second such notice to have been issued. I am not able to speculate on or speak about any other action that the Secretary of State might be minded to take. I know that he will understand that. He will know that the broad principles of concern to him, about which he has written so eloquently and powerfully in recent weeks and months, are also close to my heart.