The sale of stakes in the owners of the Independent and the Evening Standard newspapers to a Saudi buyer has been thrown into doubt after the UK government said it was “minded” to intervene in the deal on public interest grounds.
Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev has sold minority stakes of the two titles to Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel over the past two years, to bring in new investment for newspapers his family has controlled for around a decade.
But culture secretary Jeremy Wright said on Thursday that he was “minded” to intervene in the deals, which would then trigger media regulators to investigate the transaction.
In a letter Mr Wright said the deal could adversely affect “accurate presentation of news and the free expression of opinion” in the UK.
A final decision on whether to launch an investigation will come before the end of the month, pending further details on the structure of the new ownership of the newspapers which Mr Lebedev has been asked to provide by June 17.
The Evening Standard and Independent declined to comment. Mr Lebedev did not respond to requests for comment. Mr Abuljadayel could not be reached for comment.
The last time Ofcom was asked whether a media transaction raised public interest concerns was when Rupert Murdoch’s Fox tried to buy UK broadcaster Sky two years ago.
Mr Abuljadayel bought a 30 per cent stake in Mr Lebedev’s Independent Digital News and Media in 2017. The Financial Times revealed in February that the Saudi businessman was also the mystery buyer of a 30 per cent stake in Lebedev Holdings, the owner of the Evening Standard, which is edited by former UK chancellor George Osborne.
Mr Abuljadayel is associated with NCB Capital, the investment banking arm of Saudi Arabia’s National Commercial Bank. The lender is majority owned by the Saudi government through its Public Investment Fund.
The deal will be investigated by regulators if the culture secretary finds that the Saudi investor’s investment is a threat to media plurality in the UK.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it would make that judgment after establishing details of the ownership and control of the two papers.
Mr Abuljadayel’s stakes in the Independent and Evening Standard, which reaches roughly a quarter of Londoners, were acquired through two different Cayman Islands companies, which shielded his identity.
His purchase of a stake in the Independent in 2017 raised the prospect of Saudi Arabia using media investments for soft power purposes. However, a spokesman for the title said at the time that its editorial freedom would be protected.
Paul Farrelly, a Labour MP who serves on parliamentary culture committee, said at the time that the Standard’s influential position in London meant it was important “to have honesty about its ownership”.