Business

The battle for the Telegraph titles has been a story of high principle, low politics and raw commerce.

The proposed takeover by Abu Dhabi-backed RedBird-IMI, 75% financed by the UAE vice-president Sheikh Mansour, was opposed on a clear point of media ethics; that British national newspapers should never be controlled by a foreign state.

It’s a principle on which journalists, politicians and readers on all sides might agree, but one that has been argued with particular vigour because of the Telegraph’s unique position in Conservative Britain.

The newspapers have long been considered the in-house journal of the party, while the Spectator is its most sophisticated forum for ideas.

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With the party fractured and preparing for an election it is forecast to lose, the pages of the Telegraph will have considerable influence over its future direction and leadership.

In that context no deal was likely to pass without comment, but a takeover by a foreign state with a dismal record on media freedom (and fronted by a former CNN executive with a liberal reputation Jeff Zucker) was always likely to meet opposition.

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Jeff Zucker is a former CNN executive
Pic:AP

The concerns of Tory grandees, led by former leader Lord Hague and a chorus of MPs and commentators, writing for the Telegraph and rivals who may yet benefit from the deal being blocked, proved impossible to ignore.

The government had hoped to settle the matter via the regulatory process and avoid a decision that has the capacity to offend otherwise-valued Gulf investors.

Sheikh Mansour’s money has been welcomed at other venerable British institutions, notably Manchester City, where it has turned the club into the best in the world and transformed east Manchester in the process.

The UAE also has a £10bn five- year investment agreement with the UK that has seen it plunge money into life sciences and wind farms, and approached to fund the Sizewell C nuclear plant. If offence has been given, it may be costly.

What happens next is unclear, but it promises to be a prolonged fight for titles coveted by bidders including the owners of the Times, the Daily Mail and GB News.

In the first instance RedBird-IMI may try and restructure the deal with a much smaller stake for Sheikh Mansour. Other media owners have already been discussing how they might offer to dilute his holding to their advantage.

Should it choose to walk away, RedBird-IMI may also face a fight to retain control of the assets it believes it has bought.

They won the titles by circumventing an auction run by Lloyds Bank for the papers, put up as security by former owners the Barclay family as security on loans totalling £1.1bn.

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Sir Paul Marshall

Redbird-IMI put up the money to repay Lloyds in exchange for the Telegraph Media Group, and a handful of other businesses including online retailer Very.

When culture secretary Lucy Fraser referred the deal to regulators it was effectively frozen, and control of the shares formally returned to the Barclays, although they are prevented from taking any significant decisions.

RedBird-IMI insist a call option on the Telegraph shares gives them control over any future sale but insiders expect the family to try and reinsert themselves to the process and retain control.

DMGT, owners of the Daily Mail titles, and Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, owner of the Times, Sunday Times and The Sun, will be watching closely, along with another likely bidder Sir Paul Marshall, billionaire owner of GB News.

With deep pockets and fewer regulatory barriers than the Mail and Times, who will face questions over competition and media plurality, he may end up well placed to add to his stable of titles, doubtless clearly marked ‘GB’, at a consequential moment for Conservative politics.

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