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Telegraph Media Group: Proposed Sale to RedBird IMI

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2024

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 30 January.

“I am grateful to my honourable 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 honourable Members will be aware, my right honourable 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 honourable 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 honourable 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 honourable 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 honourable 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.”

My Lords, I find myself in the somewhat novel position of fiercely defending the interests of the Telegraph newspaper group and the Spectator in the interests of press freedom.

There was a fairly remarkable debate in the Commons yesterday because, on a Question about transparency and protecting democracy, the Minister’s answer was mainly that she could not answer any questions. I must gently say that this questioning is not designed to trip Ministers up; these are serious concerns, put forward thoughtfully by Members of all parties right across the House. I therefore hope the Minister will be able to answer two of those questions today. First, can the Minister point to any existing examples of a nation state with “differing media values”—as the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee delicately put it yesterday—acquiring a major newspaper of another country? Secondly, and in the light of the proposed sale, do His Majesty’s Government have any plans to review existing rules on media ownership, and if not, does the Minister think they should?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions and welcome him to the ranks of Telegraph and Spectator readers—I hope he will enjoy what he sees in their pages. He will understand that the Secretary of State is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity following the provisions laid out in the Enterprise Act 2002. She is considering whether mergers raise media public interest concerns. She has issued public interest intervention notices, reflecting the concerns that she continues to have that there may be public interest considerations in this case: the

“accurate presentation of news; and … free expression of opinion”

as set out in Section 58 of the Enterprise Act, which are relevant to this planned acquisition. I hope the noble Lord will understand that, as she is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, it is essential that she does not take into account, and that there be no perception that she has taken or is taking into account, any political or presentational considerations. I therefore find myself in the same position as my honourable friend Julia Lopez in another place yesterday in being limited in what I can say while that quasi-judicial process unfurls.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, alluded to, the strength of feeling against this deal in the House of Commons yesterday was widespread and from all quarters of that place, and I would be surprised if there was much support in this House for the deal going ahead. Notwithstanding what my noble friend said about the Secretary of State acting in a quasi-judicial capacity in considering this matter, could he none the less give us an indication of how soon the Secretary of State can reach her decision? It seems to most people that the reasons for objecting to this deal are fundamental and points of principle, not necessarily points of technicality, and it should not require a great deal of time for her to reach her decision.

The public interest intervention notices which the Secretary of State issued trigger the requirement for the Competition and Markets Authority to report to her on jurisdictional and competition matters and for Ofcom to report to her on the specified media public interest considerations. She has asked them to submit their reports by 9 am on 11 March 2024.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones tabled an amendment on Monday on the issue of media plurality. The Minister’s reply was that:

“The Government are currently reviewing the recommendations on changes to the media public interest test in Ofcom’s 2021 statement”.—[Official Report, 29/1/24; col. GC 291.]

That is over two years ago. Following on from the previous contribution, when does the Minister now expect to respond, and can he not expedite this? Of course, cynics say that he will now be able to do this because it is the Daily Telegraph; if it was the Guardian or the Independent, we would be waiting much longer.

As the noble Lord said, the Government are currently reviewing the recommendations on changes to the media public interest test that were set out in Ofcom’s 2021 statement on media plurality to ensure that we fully understand the implications of such changes, including on the industry, whatever the title. I am confident that this work will be completed soon, which will allow the Government to respond in due course.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an employee of the Daily Telegraph. May I ask the Minister a couple of points that I do not think depend on the quasi-judicial process? First, can he confirm that, when this was an auction organised by Lloyds Bank, before it took its current form, the Government stipulated that there should be no more than a 25% maximum owned by a Middle Eastern power? Can he also tell us whether, in the investigations going on, there is any investigation of this issue from a national security point of view?

I will be careful in what I say to the noble Lord because of the quasi-judicial role which the Secretary of State is following as she awaits the views of the Competition and Markets Authority and Ofcom, as I set out, but she issued a new public interest intervention notice on 26 January, following RedBird IMI making changes to the corporate structure of the potential acquiring entities of the Telegraph Media Group. That created a new limited partnership which would hold all shares in RB Investco, the proposed purchaser of the Telegraph Media Group. Having considered representations, the Secretary of State came to the conclusion that this corporate restructure created a new relevant merger situation and that, therefore, a new public intervention notice should be issued. The one she issued previously on 30 November in relation to the anticipated acquisition remains in force; that is because it covers a different relevant merger situation. Ofcom and the CMA will report on both to her by the deadline that I set out.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Stephen Welch, who is the independent director at the Telegraph and Spectator tasked with steering the sale through, has recently been named as a defendant in a case against the FTSE company ICG in the Dublin High Court? ICG and other defendants, including Stephen Welch, have been accused, inter alia, of intimidation, conspiracy and misrepresentation. Does the Minister agree that he should stand down from the Telegraph while he clears his name in this other case?

The Secretary of State is making her decision in a quasi-judicial capacity under the stipulations of the provisions of the Enterprise Act 2002.

My Lords, I will not ask the Minister to respond about the Secretary of State’s role, but the Minister will be aware that assurances have been reported in the papers that RedBird IMI would provide an independent advisory board to ensure journalistic independence. Can he tell us his assessment of the word “independent” going alongside “advisory”? Will he contemplate what the impact of that board will be, given that Meta’s advisory board has done nothing to improve Meta’s standing?

I hope the noble Baroness will forgive me, but I think it is important that I and other Ministers do not opine on anything while the Secretary of State is making her decision in the capacity she is making it in. As I say, it is important that there should be no perception that she is taking into account any political or presentational considerations. She is, of course, considering all of the relevant information as set out under the Enterprise Act.

My Lords, I declare an interest, as many years ago I had to make decisions as a Secretary of State in a quasi-judicial capacity and I understand the difficulties the Minister has. But, for goodness’ sake, it is an absolute no-brainer that you do not wish a national newspaper to be owned, however indirectly, by what is proposed. Why should it take so long for Ofcom and everyone else to come to the obvious conclusion and put us all out of our misery?

Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority have functions set out under the Enterprise Act. They are carrying out those functions at the moment. The Secretary of State looks forward to receiving their reports by the deadline that she has set out. She will then take into account what they recommend to her.