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‘Street of Shame’ can’t lecture about editorial independence

Desire of media owners to influence the content of their publications is as old as the hills

The UK government will pass a law to block takeovers of UK newspapers by entities linked to foreign governments Reuters/Belinda Jiao
The UK government will look to pass a law to block takeovers of UK newspapers by entities linked to foreign governments

The Financial Times, Independent, Sunday Telegraph, Guardian, Sunday Times, Sunday Business, Observer. Illustrious titles, all of which I worked for in my 25 years on what used to be called “The Street of Shame” – Fleet Street.

It was once the centre of British media, long before there was the concept of “mainstream” versus alternative news sources such as the internet and social media.

Those Fleet Street titles covered a wide span of political stances and ownership structures, ranging from the one-man rule of Tory renegade Rupert Murdoch at the Sunday Times to the structured anarchy of the Scott Trust at the lefty Guardian and Observer, with many shades in between. 

But they all had one thing in common: at all of them, quite regularly and consistently, the ownership, proprietor or senior management interfered in the everyday editorial process.

I thought back on my experience in the course of the current increasingly shrill debate in the UK about the possibility that the Telegraph titles and the Spectator could be formally sold to an investment group financially backed by the UAE, and the risk to the Telegraph‘s “editorial independence” this may entail.

New readers start here: the Barclay Brothers, real estate and shipping magnates turned newspaper owners with their 2004 purchase of the Telegraph and Spectator, lost control of those titles when they could not meet repayment terms on debts totalling GBP1.2 billion, and turned to well-heeled Abu Dhabi for help.

RedBird IMI, a media investment group backed by the UAE, discharged the Barclays’ debts, effectively securing financial control of the titles in the process. Now the UK government has to rule on whether RedBird can assume full management and operational control of them under “public interest” criteria.

Perhaps the main item of public interest involved is whether the new owners will interfere in editorial independence at the Telegraph and Spectator. I have news for the UK government: the old owners – at all the titles mentioned above – did it all the time.

I will not put names to examples of editorial interference I personally witnessed, but here are just a few instances where the public interest was not best served under the current British media ownership regime.

If it’s embarrassing to the owner, bury it!
At one market leading broadsheet, the editorial powers-that-be got very worked up over corporations which allegedly dodged their tax liabilities. It retained the services of a well-known accounting firm, at considerable cost, to conduct a thorough analysis to identify the tax dodgers. Lo and behold, the proprietor’s holding company came out near the top of the list. The story never saw the light of day.

Don’t offend the shareholders!
At even the more liberal of the titles I mentioned, there was mass panic in the newsroom whenever a story suggested the negative involvement of any financial backers of the title. If XYZ Investors Inc was an investor in the newspaper business, its role in a potential scandal was referred “upstairs” to senior management, which invariably came back with the message: don’t run the story.

Be aware of the owners’ friends!
One proprietor in the above list circulated to senior editors a list of his extensive non-media interests and business associates with the clear message: if you grubby hacks find any dirt on these guys, let me know first and I will tell you how to proceed depending on how I am feeling on the day.

Always check what other jobs the boss has got!
The chairman of the holding company of one of the above list was what used to be called a “City grandee”, with non-executive jobs and board positions right across the financial “Square Mile” of London. Coverage of his non-media activities, especially when it involved his role in controversial stories such as contested take-overs, was inevitably coloured by his job at the helm of the media group.

In view of these and other instances, I think it is a bit rich for the British commentariat to rage about the alleged “risk” to the Telegraph’s editorial independence from UAE ownership.

For sure, there are differences of approach to media regulation and editorial process in the UK and the UAE, largely reflecting the cultural context in which the media operates.

UK media is inquisitive, critical and investigative, reflecting a long tradition of scepticism and incredulity by the “fourth estate”.

The British approach may tell “truth to power” and occasionally reveal something that it is obviously in the public interest to have widely known. I am thinking of cases or corruption by public servants, or misuse of power by big corporations to the detriment of consumers.

But, at its worst, it also leads to phone-hacking, invasion of privacy, obsession with sexual peccadillos, “celebrity” fixation and a stack of other abuses that taint the British media. Maybe a bit more “proprietorial interference” is required to remedy those faults?

I have no idea how the struggle over the Telegraph will play out, but one thing is certain: the desire of media owners to influence the content of their publications is as old as the hills.

That, surely, is why they want to own them.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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