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UK foreign office accused of hindering investigation into proposed UAE takeover of publications

UK Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer wants an investigation to determine whether the Abu Dhabi backed bid for the Telegraph Media Group would be in the public interest
British Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer wants the proposed bid investigated to determine whether it is in the 'public interest' (AFP)

The British Foreign Office has been accused of trying to block an official investigation into an Abu Dhabi-backed takeover of two major UK news publications, according to the Times newspaper.

The Telegraph and the Spectator had been controlled by the Barclay family for two decades.

In June this year, Lloyds Banking Group took control of the Telegraph Media Group after the family failed to repay overdue loans of around £1.2bn ($1.5bn). 

Lloyds then launched an auction to sell the business. Interested bidders included Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and hedge fund billionaire and GB News co-owner, Paul Marshall, according to the Financial Times. 

However, RedBird IMI, a venture that is backed by the owner of Manchester City football club, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, stepped in and agreed to provide funding for the Barclays to repay their loans and then take over the media group, according to the same outlet. 

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Lloyds is now deliberating the proposed RedBird IMI deal, sparking concern among Conservative MPs over the future of a newspaper.

The UK's culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, warned earlier this week that a takeover by the Abu Dhabi-backed investment fund of the newspaper and magazine, which have both traditionally aligned with the Conservative party, could undermine “free expression of opinion” and prevent the “accurate presentation of the news”. 

The Telegraph sale: The UAE bid is a risk to press freedom
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Frazer intends to launch a regulatory investigation to determine whether the proposed takeover would be in the public interest, according to the Murdoch-owned Times newspaper, 

According to Reporters Without Borders, the United Arab Emirates is ranked 145th in the world for press freedom, because of its record of "preventing both local and foreign independent media outlets from thriving by tracking down and persecuting dissenting voices".

The Foreign Office is reportedly said to have expressed concerns to the UK government of potential diplomatic fallout if the deal did not go through, given the key political role the UAE plays in the Middle East, according to The Times. 

The culture secretary's department has written a letter to Lloyds, the Barclay family, and RedBird IMI, indicating that she will issue a public interest intervention notice, which would prompt regulators to investigate.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Jeff Zucker, a former CNN boss who is now the CEO of RedBird IMI,  promised the UK government he would guarantee the newspaper’s independence, and accused rival bidders of “slinging mud”.

“There’s a reason that people are slinging mud and throwing darts - [it’s] because they want to own these assets,” he said. “And they have their own media assets to try to hurt us,” he told the FT. 

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