Telegraph Media Group Ltd: Acquisition - Statement

– in the House of Lords am 7:02 pm ar 1 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 30 April.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the proposed acquisition of the Telegraph Media Group by RB Investco Ltd. I will refer to the Telegraph Media Group as the Telegraph and to RB Investco Ltd as the purchaser.

As the House will know, the sale of the Telegraph is currently subject to the media mergers process. Today, I would like to confirm that the purchaser has notified me of its intention to sell the call option agreement that gives it the ability to buy the Telegraph, in effect withdrawing from the purchase of the newspaper. This step follows the intervention I made on the merger situation on 26 January 2024, both to issue a public interest intervention notice, or PIIN, and to issue a pre-emptive action order. It also follows on from my announcement of 19 March on my assessment, following the reports of the Competition and Markets Authority and Ofcom, that I was minded to refer the merger to a further, more detailed phase 2 investigation. I have taken these decisions on the basis of the evidence in the case, and I will continue to do so.

I am now updating the House on the procedures and protections for the public interest that are in place in respect of the Telegraph, given the sale process that I understand will begin shortly. I have informed the parties that it would not be appropriate at this stage for me to take a decision on whether or not to make a phase 2 reference. In my view, the relevant merger situation remains in contemplation. I therefore continue to have powers, under the order, to prevent actions by the parties to the merger that might prejudice any phase 2 reference to the CMA or make it more difficult for me to take action as a result of my final decision following such a reference. The order prohibits the parties from making significant organisational and staff changes, including to the editorial team, without my consent. These restrictions remain in place. However, I have now agreed to derogations from the order that will give the parties the flexibility and regulatory space to make all reasonable preparations for the sale of the call option agreement.

It is important to be clear that I will not be engaging with prospective buyers, nor selecting the preferred bidder. The sale process will be run by RedBird IMI alone. My decision on any further derogation from the order that RedBird IMI will need to receive to complete the sale of the call option agreement will be made according to my powers and obligations under the Enterprise Act 2002, and it will be based on the public interest, rather than a qualitative decision on who should buy the titles. Any transfer to new ownership will also potentially be subject to the media mergers regime, as set out in the Act.

It is appropriate for me to say a few words about the underlying matters. I initiated this process under the powers I have under the Enterprise Act to protect the accurate presentation of news and the free expression of opinion in newspapers. These powers are vital. The freedom of the press to express opinions, to criticise and to hold power to account are all a fundamental part of our democracy. It is often said that the freedom of the press protects not the press’s freedom but ours.

It would not be appropriate for a foreign state to interfere with the accurate presentation of our news or the freedom of expression in newspapers. Although these powers under the existing media merger regime are broad, the Government have taken action to rule out newspaper and news magazine mergers involving any influence, ownership or control by foreign states. We have done that by amending the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which will shortly return to this House.

As a nation, we are a proud, open democracy and a strong trading power with a vibrant economy. Although we are rightly limiting powers to interfere with our democracy, as many other states do, in terms of foreign investment more generally we remain open for business.

I end by recognising the strength of feeling in this House and the other place, and by recognising the work done by the Minister of State, my honourable friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, and in particular by the right honourable Baroness Stowell of Beeston.

I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 7:25, 1 Mai 2024

My Lords, we on the Labour Benches are grateful today to the Government for this short Statement, setting out where they are on the future acquisition of the Telegraph Media Group. As the House knows, we have been steadfast in our support for a free and independent press across the political spectrum. We will always champion the right of a free press to hold power to account, speak hard truths and expose corruption and wrongdoing.

We oppose foreign powers owning our free press, which has been consistently raised by parliamentarians across all Benches both here and in another place. We also welcome investment into the UK, in particular in news media businesses. For that reason this Statement is important, as it sets out how the Secretary of State intends to use her powers. It is our expectation that the Secretary of State will use these powers wisely to protect the diversity of our media landscape and encourage inward investment. The Government can be assured that we will follow the auction process closely.

I have a few questions today for the Minister. First, can he say a little more about the timescale for the auction? Can he assure the House that the Telegraph Media Group will at all times keep its workforce and unions informed? I noted from the Secretary of State’s Statement that the order governing this process not only prevents actions that might prejudice a phase 2 reference to the CMA; it also effectively freezes organisational and staff changes. To us, it would seem that union consultation is a small move on from that step, so have Ministers had any discussions with the relevant trade unions representing Telegraph Media Group staff? Can the Minister also tell the House what principles will underpin the approach to the auction and what steps the Secretary of State will take to guarantee that there is a free and open sale of the media group?

This is a year of multiple elections: we have local elections tomorrow and a general election, we hope, as soon as possible afterwards. It is essential to our working democracy that we have a free, honest and independent press. For our part, although we may not always agree with the editorial line of the Telegraph, we will champion its right—and the right of all publications—to hold us all to account.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I had always imagined that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, was a Telegraph reader.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

Yes, the cricket.

We welcome this Statement. Sometimes I am teased by my colleagues about my membership of the Puttnam committee on the Communications Act 2003, but actually the Puttnam amendment to that Act is the origin of the powers that the Secretary of State has used here. The Puttnam amendment widened the reasons for Secretary of State interventions and has been used very usefully at key times in the last 20 years. In terms of these bids for purchase of our media, it means that we are able to take in the wider public interest and we support the Secretary of State in so doing.

I am not naturally a supporter of RedBird IMI, but I have some sympathy for the question of whether it is fair to either would-be bidders or the wider public interest to be so behind the curve and reactive when such bids arise. Media ownership is becoming more interlocking and intertwined between print, broadcasting and online. In many ways, although they might not like it, print journalists are becoming almost like the hand-loom weavers in the world of fast-moving technological change—and that is before we feel the full impact of artificial intelligence on the sector.

I would like to probe the Minister. Yesterday, Sir John Whittingdale in the other place pointed out that

“it is six years since Ofcom said that there needs to be fundamental review of our media merger regime

I agree with him, and I ask the Minister whether the Government are actively considering such a review.

With the Media Bill now before this House, will the Government seek cross-party agreement on clarifying and strengthening our media ownership rules for the future? I see the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, is in her place. She has already put down an amendment to the Media Bill which could take this forward, but I think it could be done much more comprehensively at this time. If we do not do it comprehensively at this time, we will find that we have another 20 years of drift and that we are behind the game. It is essential that we have in place protection from foreign influences and state players, while, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, emphasised, seeing sustained plurality in both ownership and opinion in a free press—as all sides of the House want.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I should reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, that the Government do not always agree with the editorial line of the Telegraph either, but that is the point. The independence of the press, holding Governments of all colours to account, is why the Secretary of State has always taken this so seriously and used the powers available to her under the Enterprise Act in the way that she has. It is why, as I outlined in debates on the digital markets Bill, we have acted to put beyond doubt and make explicit the ability for her to act in this scenario following the concerns raised, not least by my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, about the potential influence of foreign Governments over our newspapers.

I am grateful to both noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord McNally, for their comments and their welcome of the Statement. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for recalling rightly the role that Lord Puttnam played in the legislative landscape, which the Secretary of State and her predecessors have been able to use in this important area.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred to the balance between taking action to preserve the freedom of press, which we hold dear as a cornerstone of our democracy, and attracting investment into the UK. We have always been clear, as have my noble friend Lady Stowell and others, that our actions in relation to the potential influence of foreign Governments are not prejudicial to our welcoming of foreign investment more generally in media businesses, and I am glad to have the opportunity to say that again.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, asked about consultation with trade unions. The Government will not be engaging with potential buyers or be involved in the sale process from this stage on. We have obviously been careful in the stages so far. From now on, it will be run by RedBird IMI alone. The Secretary of State made her decision based on the evidence provided by Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority, which issued a call for evidence and spoke to relevant parties. The unions could have made representations to both those bodies—whether they did or not, I do not know, but that is the appropriate way for views to be fed in. The noble Lord is right to refer to the people whose jobs and livelihoods depend on this. Some of them, who have jobs that allow them to write freely, have made those points, but there are many more people whose jobs in these important sectors are affected by it, which I am happy to acknowledge.

On timelines, RedBird IMI will now proceed with a sale of the call option. The details of that are not finalised, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the next steps as they are a commercial matter. I will say, as the Secretary of State has, that she will monitor the outcome with a view to deciding in due course if she should take any further regulatory action under the Enterprise Act.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked about our consideration of the media mergers regime more broadly. That work was already under way before this issue came to a head. We have taken the action that we have in the digital markets Bill. That action continues, and we will have more to say on that, not least during our debates on the Media Bill. I know that he and others will rightly use this as an opportunity to return to these matters.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee 7:35, 1 Mai 2024

My Lords, I will pick up on the theme of timescales. I am grateful to my noble friend for the answers he has given to the noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord McNally, because they cover some of the issues I wanted to ask about. Could my noble friend also tell us what the expectation is for the Government to bring forward the secondary legislation that covers the carve-out for legitimate indirect foreign state investors, such as sovereign wealth funds? That is important in providing clarity for prospective buyers. This has already been said, but it is worth saying again: in raising this, I am very conscious that, in meeting our essential objective of a sustainable future for our free press, we should ensure that there is a proper channel for inward investment into the media industry. If my noble friend could give an update, that would be helpful.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

Many of the provisions we have made in the digital markets Bill require the Bill to receive Royal Assent, which I hope it will very soon, and they will come into force then. Once that has happened, we will be able to bring forward the measures we have committed to via secondary legislation. I will be writing in the coming days with a bit more information about that and about the consultation process on some of the points my noble friend raised, and we discussed in debates during the passage of the Bill. I will write to all noble Lords with further information about that very soon.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, the questions so far have focused on the intersection between this and the previous regime, which was established, as noble Lords have already said, by Lord Puttnam and his Enterprise Act—it was not exactly his; it was the House’s Enterprise Act, and it was published by a Government we were proud to be part of. That has stood the test of time, but I am afraid time is accelerating. We are now in a situation with a rather hard edge.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, whom I worked with on the amendment we eventually put through, which will also be referred to within the forthcoming digital media Bill. However, that provides an absolute block against further foreign ownership; it is not just ownership, but interests in the freedom of the press and the plurality of it. Of course, there are other issues, which under the old regime would be considered, including those looked at in detail by Ofcom and the CMA.

I want to pick up on the exchange the noble Lord, Lord McNally, quoted, between the Secretary of State and John Whittingdale. In response to his question about whether these things need to be brought forward and accelerated, she said that she was

“looking at whether online news should be included in the scope of Ofcom’s powers

I rather had the view that Ofcom had those powers. Could the noble Lord explain a little bit where he sees a gap and, if so, given what he said about timescales, whether we can look forward to the gaps being filled in? That seems to be a very important part of it, in the context of us needing to look more widely at what we want out of a free press, without reflecting government intervention and recognising that plurality is one of the main concerns. There are other bidders for the current holdings in the Daily Telegraph, one of which is a media interest. I wonder if the Minister would like to opine on that.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

The noble Lord’s question gets to the heart of an important distinction: there are newspapers that have websites, there are websites that are news providers, and there are online services that are not principally news providers but from which people increasingly derive their news. It is right that we look at all those things. He is right that the Communications Act 2003 has served us well for the last 20 years but, as we said in our debates on the Online Safety Act, it was written at a time when the internet was in its infancy and did not look at it. Of course, we touched on that in the debates on that Act and will return to some of the points in the Media Bill. We will shortly consult on expanding the existing media mergers regime and the foreign state ownership provisions to include online news websites, and we will touch on other matters when we discuss the Media Bill.

Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, it has been a long time since 1855 and the start of the Telegraph at the time of the Crimean War and when David Livingstone found the Victoria Falls. Can the Minister tell us how many owners the Telegraph has had in that time? He may wish to write to me. It was started by Arthur Sleigh as a way of airing personal grievances against the future commander-in-chief of the British Army, Prince George, Duke of Cambridge. We should have a sense of proportion. I thought Rupert Murdoch, Roy Thomson and Conrad Black—the noble Lord, Lord Black of Crossharbour—did not have British passports, and there was Max Beaverbrook and many others, so this is not something new.

However, I respect the way the Government have acted fast to block a loophole. I pay particular tribute to my noble friends Lady Stowell and Lord Forsyth. In my day as Secretary of State, it was my noble friend Lord Inglewood who handled all the impossibly complex issues around media ownership. The Lords questions were always so much more difficult than those in the Commons, so I could simply sail through. I believe that it is extraordinarily important for there to be transparency about media ownership—so can the Minister inform us who the real owners of the Jewish Chronicle are?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

I will have to write to my noble friend on that and to give a precise number of owners of the Daily Telegraph since 1855, and of the Spectator, which is linked to this and older still. She is right to refer to a number of the foreign owners that there have been. We have made the distinction throughout between foreign Governments and foreign investment; it is important to underline that again. We have no problem with foreign investment in our media businesses, just as in so many other areas of our economy. The problem raised by my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston and a number of others was foreign government interference. They made it clear that they would have as much of a problem with the Government of the United Kingdom having influence over newspapers in this country. However, it remains true that the Daily Telegraph is the only newspaper that has produced an editor who also sat in Cabinet: Bill Deedes. It has a long history of representation in your Lordships’ House and the fine line between politics and the media, but it is important that we maintain its independence so that it can continue to hold Governments to account.

Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I apologise—I have received a text from the Father of the House of Commons, who says that I never declare my interests. For the past 10 years, I have been an unremunerated trustee of the Economist newspaper, where we went through a change of media ownership, which we took extremely seriously. I am delighted to tell the House that the Economist is as flourishing today as ever it was.