Our government has passed the first test. In issuing a Public Interest Intervention Notice (PIIN) in response to the United Arab Emirates-funded bid to buy the Telegraph titles and The Spectator magazine, culture secretary Lucy Frazer has ordered the media regulator to investigate.
The referral to Ofcom is clear: it will examine whether the controversial deal risks “the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion in newspapers”.
We can trust that they will come up with the right conclusions because it is obvious to all of us that a newspaper owned by a Gulf state will face questions surrounding freedom of expression. It doesn’t pass the sniff test because many believe – correctly in my view – that the UAE falls short of Western standards and values.
Ultimately, however, this is a political decision. It is Frazer’s job to either greenlight, impose restrictions on, or block the deal. And as a woman in politics she should recognise that a newspaper that promotes women as key columnists may struggle to operate under the guise of any authoritarian regime that implements sexist laws.
This newspaper, along with The Spectator, has always had a proud history of prominently featuring women’s voices. The unparalleled Janet Daley has been sharing her incisive views on politics, philosophy and economics with Sunday Telegraph readers since 1996. Allison Pearson has been bravely speaking up for the silent majority for decades, rejoining The Telegraph as a columnist in 2010.
When the proud feminist Suzanne Moore was hounded out of The Guardian for her views on trans ideology, we welcomed her with open arms. Bryony Gordon’s pioneering work on mental health helped to start a national conversation about this important issue. And behind the scenes we have a formidable team of female writers, reporters and editors who make sure that we are always covering the stories that really matter to the women who read this newspaper, as well as the men.
There are, of course, numerous other reasons to be concerned about this takeover of a national treasure.
Charles Moore has already argued it would be “unforgivable” for The Telegraph to be “nationalised” by a foreign state which does not have press freedom. He also expressed valid concerns about the bid being fronted by Jeff Zucker, “a media executive under whose watch CNN became an aggressively Left-wing news network.”
Lord Hague, the former foreign secretary, has warned of potential editorial interference after revealing he had once received a telephone call from “a senior figure” in the UAE, who had “wanted to complain vociferously about the BBC”, which had broadcast news items that had “reflected very badly on some powerful Emiratis”.
He was also critical of the investment minister Lord Johnson, who implied that concerns over the takeover are “sentimental”.
As a Telegraph journalist, I share all these fears. But as a woman, I am even more deeply concerned about the potential for this newspaper to be owned by a sexist regime. For, while women in the UAE have made huge progress and enjoy more freedoms than others in the Middle East, they are still discriminated against in the judicial system, as reports by international observers have found.
According to an LSE paper published in October, while “the UAE’s advertising campaign narrates the accomplishments of women in high positions of power (such as surgeons, pilots, engineers, professors and diplomats) and frames their achievements in nationalistic terms, representing the new Emirati standard, these carefully curated images often do not reflect the experiences of ordinary Emirati women, as many of the depicted women are affiliated with the royal family.” It added that royal women who attempted to break free from their constraints faced harsh consequences, “including abduction, imprisonment, and torture”.
Advances have been made, said the report, but some gender biases continued to persist, “exemplified by the wife’s legal obligations to the husband, as well as in sectors such as healthcare, where access to maternal care can be withheld if the mother does not provide a marriage certificate”. Legal reforms had not been applied to all women equally, either.
In July 2022, The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) found that UAE law discriminates against women in the transmission of nationality to children.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, has catalogued countless examples of the UAE’s “Media Regulatory Office” suppressing freedom of expression, including censoring content in the media deemed to be “immoral”. In June last year, according to Amnesty, it banned Lightyear, a US-produced film because it depicted a same-sex kiss and later instructed Netflix to remove same-sex content from its services in the UAE or face prosecution.
Around the same time, Amnesty claims, the newspaper Al Roeya, which is published by a company owned by Sheikh Mansour, fired almost all its journalists and editors because the paper had reported on how Emiratis were reacting to the rising price of energy. The print newspaper then ceased publication, with the website kept online by a skeleton staff and publishing only business news.
Finally, as a woman, I cannot forgo mentioning the bizarre case of the “missing” daughter of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who serves with Sheikh Mansour as vice president of the UAE. In 2018, a video was released of Sheikha Latifa, 37, after she attempted to flee the UAE, claiming she was a victim of abuse and accusing her father of being a “major criminal”.
She was returned to “the loving care of her family” months later, only for another video to surface in 2021, showing Latifa saying she had been held hostage in solitary confinement “with no access to medical help”. Following a #FreeLatifa campaign, she is now believed to be living in Paris.
So while I welcome Ofcom’s investigation, this takeover has implications that go well beyond the media regulator’s remit. In assessing this bid, Lucy Frazer and indeed Rishi Sunak would be wise to ask themselves one fundamental question: do they want women like me to carry on writing these sorts of articles for the Telegraph, or not?