Spectator chairman urges ministers to block ‘absurd’ Abu Dhabi-backed takeover

The chairman of The Spectator has said it would be “absurd” for a “dictatorship” to own the right-wing magazine as he rallied against a potential takeover by an Abu Dhabi-backed fund.

Andrew Neil told the BBC he would quit his role with the 200-year-old publication if the takeover goes ahead.

In his first public comments on the proposed deal, the journalist and broadcaster said the potential for The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator to be owned by a group headed up by senior rulers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an authoritarian Gulf state, “beggars belief” and urged ministers to block the deal.

It comes after Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, this week warned that preserving a free press “means keeping governments and publications apart”.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer has already triggered a Public Interest Intervention Notice (PIIN) to investigate the potential impact on press freedom if the Daily Telegraph newspaper and The Spectator were taken over by RedBird IMI.

The investment fund is majority-owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, vice president of UAE and owner of Manchester City Football Club.

The fund announced in November it had reached a deal with previous Telegraph owners, the Barclay family, to take control of the newspaper group, and fellow publication The Spectator, by paying off debts owed to their bank, Lloyds.

Ms Frazer’s intervention over press freedom fears led to a review by media regulator Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

They were expected to have their reports to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport by Friday containing initial findings about the potential impact of the takeover.

Speaking to BBC’s Newsnight programme, Mr Neil said: “My main concern is that the people bankrolling this are the UAE, the United Arab Emirates.

Manchester City v Inter Milan – UEFA Champions League – Final – Ataturk Olympic Stadium
Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan owns IMI, which is the majority stakeholder of RedBird IMI (Martin Rickett/PA)

“They are a government, and the idea that government should own newspapers and magazines in Britain I think is absurd.

“But they are not just a government, they are an undemocratic government — they are a dictatorship.

“The UAE is a terribly successful place — I have done business there — but it is not a democratic government.

“We are a democracy, our publications are part of the democratic process. How could we be owned by an undemocratic government?”

He added: “The Government should be stepping in because we shouldn’t be owned by a foreign government — any kind of government, particularly a dictatorship.”

Mr Neil was also critical of Jeff Zucker, the former CNN executive who is leading the bid.

Daily Telegraph potential sale
The offices of the Telegraph Media Group in central London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Zucker told the BBC earlier this month that Sheikh Mansour would be a “passive investor” and said the takeover was “American led”.

Mr Neil called Mr Zucker a “very impressive broadcasting executive” but said he “knows nothing about Britain, he knows nothing about print, he knows nothing about newspapers, and he knows nothing about magazines”.

He continued: “So the idea that these two vital vehicles of mainstream centre-right thought (the Telegraph and Spectator) should be owned by Arab money and controlled out of New York by a left-wing Democrat beggars belief.”

Announcing his plans to quit as chairman if the deal goes ahead, he said: “If RedBird take it over, I’ll be gone.”

A spokesman for RedBird IMI said the fund would not be responding to Mr Neil’s comments.

As the public waits to hear of Ofcom and the CMA’s findings, Ms Frazer signalled this week there could be a further intervention after RedBird announced a new corporate structure.

As part of the new structure, RedBird IMI created a UK-based holding company for the Telegraph newspapers.

Officials have informed the fund that DCMS views that the restructure has created a new relevant merger situation (RMS) which could impact the current process into the potential impact of a takeover deal.

The debate over the press takeover comes as Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden used new powers to declare that there are national security risks in a UAE firm being the major shareholder in telephone operator Vodafone.

Oliver Dowden
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said a UAE company’s shares in Vodafone could mount a national security threat (James Manning/PA)

In the order published in Mr Dowden’s name on Wednesday, it says the relationship Emirates Telecommunications Group, which does business as Etisalat by e&, has with the British firm would “enable it materially to influence the policy of Vodafone”.

The senior Conservative ruled that, under powers granted by the National Security and Investment Act, he considered that e&’s stake in Vodafone could cause “a risk to national security” on issues of cyber security and in the operator’s role as a “strategic supplier of services to many parts” of government.

Abu Dhabi-listed e& has built up a stake of 14.6% in Vodafone, marking a deepening of a strategic tie-up that began in May 2022 when e& first invested in the FTSE 100 giant.

The British telephone firm announced in May that e& chief executive Hatem Dowidar would join the Vodafone board as a non-executive director.

Coming eight months after that move, Mr Dowden has now imposed conditions, including for Vodafone and e& to “meet certain requirements relating to Vodafone’s board composition” and to “establish a National Security Committee to oversee sensitive work that Vodafone and its group perform which has an impact on, or is in respect of the national security of the UK”.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: “The National Security and Investment regime enables the UK to continue championing open investment, whilst protecting national security. ”