The recent announcement that a Saudi investor was to buy a significant stake in the Independent news website has reignited debates over media plurality in the UK.
Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, who has no other business interests in the UK, has acquired a stake of between 25 and 50 per cent in Independent Digital News and Media, the holding company of the publication. The stake of Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian oligarch who owns the brand’s parent company ESI Media (which also owns the London Evening Standard), has now fallen below 50 per cent.
The sale of shares to Abuljadayel has raised concerns among readers and staff of the publication about the effect that his influence could have on the paper’s editorial stance. Both as a paper (the publication dropped its print editions in 2016) and as a website, the Indy has maintained a left of centre viewpoint and has criticised both human rights and press freedom in Saudi Arabia on a number of occasions.
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Although a spokesperson for the outlet asserted that the “editorial independence of the Independent has been formally protected, both human rights campaigners and journalism organisations have raised concerns about the deal, which reportedly could be worth up to $130 million (£99.9 million).
Human rights activist Peter Tatchell told Middle East Eye (who first reported the deal) that “it would not seem consistent with the Independent's record of championing liberal values for a Saudi sultan to have a significant share in the ownership of this media outlet.”
The sale has also raised wider questions about the lack of transparency surrounding who owns Britain’s most popular media outlets. Seamus Dooley, acting General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, told Press Gazette that the union was in favour of “maximum transparency” relating to media ownership and that “nothing” is known about Abuljadayel.
Just two companies (News Corp UK and the Daily Mail Group) control 60% of national newspaper circulation.
Recent research has found that Britain’s media ownership is dominated by a small number of companies. A report published by the Media Reform Coalition in 2015 found that just two companies (News Corp UK and the Daily Mail Group) control 60 per cent of national newspaper circulation, and that five companies accounted for 80 per cent of news consumption both online and in print.
Analysis by news website Left Foot Forward in 2013 found that 77.8 per cent of the UK press was controlled by a “handful of billionaires”, many of whom were not resident in the UK or were non-domiciled for tax purposes. Many of these companies also have or have previously had foreign stakeholders, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp UK, which was part-owned by Saudi royal Prince al Waleed Bin Talal from 1997 until 2015.