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UK plans to bar foreign state ownership of British newspapers

The U.K. announced Wednesday that it plans to ban foreign state governments from owning British newspapers, which could scupper the long-talked Abu Dhabi-led takeover of the Telegraph Media Group.

Stephen Parkinson, a media minister, announced in the upper chamber of the House of Lords that the Conservative government would amend proposed legislation to ” prevent foreign state ownership of newspapers.”

A government spokesperson said the move would “deliver additional protections for a free press, a pillar of our democracy.”

It follows pressure over the proposed takeover of the Daily Telegraph newspaper and Spectator magazine by a joint venture 75% owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, vice president and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

RedBird IMI, a joint venture between U.S. firm RedBird Capital and Abu Dhabi’s International Media Investments, struck a 1.2 billion pound ($1.5 billion) deal with TMG’s owners, the Barclay family in November.

The agreement saw RedBird IMI pay off bank debts in exchange for control of the media group.

The announcement sparked an uproar in British media circles and the U.K. government quickly opened a formal probe into the sale on public-interest grounds.

The takeover plans have also raised concerns among some lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party, which has long enjoyed a close ideological relationship with the right-leaning Telegraph titles.

The Spectator – once edited by former Tory prime minister and Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson – is widely considered the “Tory bible.”

Its chair, Andrew Neil, told Sky News the announcement was “a move in the right direction” but said the government came “late to the party,” as he had long called for such legislation.

The takeover plans have also led to consternation among Telegraph staff, who have repeatedly spoken out against it.

Minority interests?

The government spokesperson hinted that the changes were sparked by the proposed takeover of the Telegraph titles.

“We have listened carefully to the arguments made by parliamentarians in recent weeks and are taking action to explicitly rule out foreign state ownership, influence, or control of newspapers and periodical news magazines,” the spokesperson said.

The amendment is set to be added to next week’s third and final reading of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, meaning it could come into force soon.

“We intend that the changes should take immediate effect upon royal assent,” said Parkinson, confirming that the ban would not apply to broadcasters.

RedBird IMI is majority-owned by Sheikh Mansour, who also owns the football club Manchester City.

RedBird IMI is run by former CNN president Jeff Zucker, who has said that Mansour would be a “passive investor” and that the takeover was “American-led.”

British media suggested that minority interests in newspapers and magazines by foreign governments might be allowed, leaving the door open for a restructured bid by RedBird that reduces the UAE’s stake.

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