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Image: Chris Dorney / Shutterstock
Image: Chris Dorney / Shutterstock

Government interference is hurting British media

Aaqil Ahmed
March 27, 2024

The last two months has seen the saga of the Telegraph takeover bid by Abu Dhabi affiliated Redbird culminate in the UK government proposing new legislation to ban any foreign government from ownership of British media assets.

But the UK government's reaction to the proposed acquisition, which included a bail out of £1.15 billion owed to Lloyd’s Bank, isn't just alarmist; it’s a dangerous interference in the free markets and sets a troubling precedent for state interference in the decision-making of independent media in the country.

The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill includes measures to ban all foreign state ownership of British newspapers.

But this is a very slippery slope.

None of this is to say that there should not be lengthy and in-depth due diligence process when a UK media outlet changes hands, especially if the purchasing party is a foreign entity. There are of course regulatory frameworks that already exist to maintain standards and promote competition.

But the fact remains there is scant evidence to suggest the Telegraph's editorial independence would be compromised under Redbird's stewardship, which they have confirmed would only be as passive investors alongside other prominent British media tycoons.

The government’s position also seems at odds with the fact that Redbird is already in the process of acquiring London’s All3Media, a production company behind globally acclaimed shows like “Squid Game” and “The Traitors,” without similar uproar. Or that the same heavy handed and disproportionate scrutiny was not applied to Russian oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev purchasing the Evening Standard in 2009.

It would not be unreasonable to suggest timing has something to do with the exceptionally strong line Prime Minister Sunak has taken. With a general election looming, it certainly doesn’t hurt his election prospects to be seen as a stalwart defender of pillars of British Conservative thought against foreign encroachments.

But that misses a major element in the room. One of the biggest threats to media diversity in Britain is the fact that so much control is consolidated in so few hands. After all, a small number of corporations control 90% of the British media landscape. DMG Media, owned by Lord Rothermere and responsible for titles such as the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, and the Metro represents nearly 40% of the national newspapers' weekly sales. Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch's News UK and Reach, the publisher behind the Mirror and Express titles, hold sway over one third and one fifth of the market share, respectively.

This concentration of ownership - undoubtedly hindering media diversity, innovation, and competitiveness - is arguably a greater threat to the strength of British media institutions and its diversity then foreign investment from a passive partner. After all, how can a media landscape dominated by a few large players – as we see in Russia and China - not limit the plurality of voices and perspectives that are essential for a healthy democracy?

Ironically, it is investment in a media sector that desperately needs it that’s a necessary part of the solution. Under the guise of national security, the government's actions threaten to choke off the very lifeline it needs to adapt and flourish in the digital and globalised era.

In the end, our government's stance on Redbird, particularly its insistence on using legislation to kill any prospect of Redbird acquiring it - sets a dangerous precedent that will succeed in winning populist points more than addressing underlying concerns. Ultimately, it’s a move that will hurt British media far more than protect it.

AAQIL AHMED

Aaqil Ahmed is a former Commissioning Editor at both the BBC and Channel 4.

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