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TUESDAY 27  FEBRUARY 2024

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 Murky £1bn takeover of the Telegraph is a very British form of corruption

The takeover of the Telegraph gets ever murkier. That’s just what happens in a £1 billion battle for power, influence and international standing.


At the end of what has become a convoluted process, there will be one winner, who will walk away with the 168-year-old newspaper as well as its sister Sunday and The Spectator magazine.


The man in the box seats now is Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan, deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and owner of Manchester City FC.


As with wars, takeovers are stalked by opportunists looking to rake in a dirham or two. Step forward Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, former Cabinet Minister and former chair of the Conservative Party.


Zahawi was sacked from the latter role after failing to disclose that the Inland Revenue was investigating his tax affairs. He owed millions, which suggests tax forms were as mysterious to him as they are to the rest of us.


Strange, though, for a man who managed to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer.


Zahawi, a Kurd whose grandfather was governor of the Central Bank of Iraq, is said to have helped to broker the potential deal by introducing the Telegraph’s owners, the Barclay family, to investors in the Middle East.


The Financial Times reported that he was seeking a fee for acting as a middleman and helping to arrange finance. It has also been suggested that he could become chair of the Telegraph group if the deal were to go through.


Zahawi wasn’t the only politician seeking to trouser cash from the United Arab Emirates. Lord (David) Cameron of Chipping Norton, Foreign Secretary, is said to be supporting the Telegraph bid behind the scenes.


Cameron, who came back into government saying, “I believe in public service”, has given four speeches in the UAE each earning him a minimum fee of £117,500, says a Telegraph investigation.


He travelled first class and while there stayed in five-star hotels. Cameron also lectured for three weeks at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. None of these earnings had to be declared.


A senior Tory source told the paper: “Everyone knows that, unfortunately, due to his close connections, the Foreign Secretary is minded to let the bid proceed. That gives rise to a potential conflict of interest.”


Cameron’s spokesman said the decision on the Mansour bid was for Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer to make and Cameron was not involved.


Cameron has form for lobbying. While he was out of government, he tried repeatedly to convince the Treasury to allow Greensill Capital to join an emergency Covid lending scheme.


The Treasury Select Committee was told that Cameron had sent 25 texts,12 WhatsApps and eight emails. He also put in 11 calls and had nine meetings with senior Ministers and officials.


The firm, run by Australian banker Lex Greensill, later collapsed at an estimated cost to taxpayers ranging from £408 million to £5 billion. Mr Cameron told the committee he had not broken any rules when he tried to influence ministers and officials on behalf of Greensill.

 

It had been "appropriate" for him to call and text ministers and officials directly, as financial schemes were being designed quickly at a "time of extraordinary crisis". He has refused to confirm how much he was paid but denied it was £10 million.

 

And Cameron’s old buddy, George Osborne, is at it too. He recently took a job as a partner at a boutique investment bank, Robey Warshaw, and is said to be advising on the Telegraph deal and how to steer it past any obstacles it might come up against in Westminster.


None of these chancers is breaking the law or even the rules that govern the ethical conduct of our politicians. They no doubt see the money they make as a fair return for their talents, experience and contacts.


But I can’t help thinking this peddling of influence is a subtle, elegant and very British form of corruption.


Meanwhile the tussle for the Telegraph titles goes on. Last minute changes to the corporate structure at Redbird IMI, the Abu Dhabi-backed fund that is aiming to seize the papers for Mansour, have annoyed Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer.


She has ordered a new inquiry by the media regulator Ofcom. There is already a “public interest” investigation under way because of concerns that Sheikh Mansour might interfere in editorial freedom. The report was due to land on Frazer’s desk on Friday but she has extended the deadline to March 11.


The corporate changes have allowed her to kick the can even further down the road. Perhaps the Sheikh will get bored with it all and pull out. If the Tories can stall long enough it will become Keir Starmer’s problem.


Waiting in the wings are Rothermere’s Daily Mail and National World, run by former Mirror boss David Montgomery.


In the midst of this, the Telegraph Media Group appointed a new Chief Executive, Anna Jones, to replace Nick Hugh and Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson, whose magazine is a takeover target, became the latest journalist to rubbish the deal.


“To be sure, the Emiratis are our allies,” he wrote in his column. “But if that changes and they get closer to Moscow, how much of the country’s apparatus do we want in their hands?”


As if enough shady characters aren’t involved already, are Putin and his oligarch pals about to join the cast of this saga?


Told you it was murky.


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Have you noticed how the Mail is quietly putting up a paywall at its online site?


If you wish to read the best of the Mail’s content now, you have to subscribe to Mail+. They began rolling it out a week ago.


I didn’t notice it until my wife said she suddenly could not access her favourite columnists, who seem to include Tom Utley and Sarah Vine.


If you sign up to the subscription service, for £4.99 a month, you can read 15 “premium” articles a day and receive a “Best of The Mail” weekly newsletter.


It had to happen. The Mail couldn’t just keep putting its top features and stories out there for free. But soon we will know how many of its online readers are loyal and engaged enough to put their hands in their pockets.


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A tale in The Times caught my eye on Monday. It was bylined Anthony Loyd in Lviv. This is the place where masochism – the deriving of sexual pleasure from pain – was born. Who knew?


The word comes from the name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who wrote a book, Venus in Furs, about his kinky fetish.


Loyd sipped an absinthe at the bar of the Masoch Café as he tried to get a feel for the story. What he felt most was a lash across his back as he left. Pain or pleasure? He doesn’t disclose that.


But he does tell the story with far too much relish, the naughty boy.


RICHARD DISMORE



30 January 2024