Whoever buys the Daily Telegraph is not just purchasing a historic and profitable newspaper – they are acquiring direct access to Tory party members who will control the future direction of the Conservatives.
Paul Goodman, the editor of ConservativeHome, said the newspaper retained “considerable” influence among the approximately 160,000 card-carrying members of the party’s rank and file who vote in leadership elections and MP selections.
“According to our survey the Telegraph is by far and away the most-read outlet among Conservative party members,” he said.
The Barclay family, who have owned the Daily and Sunday Telegraph for the past two decades, have often ensured the titles align with their personal views on key topics, such as supporting Brexit and lower taxes. Last week, the Daily Telegraph launched a campaign against “profoundly unfair” inheritance tax, repeatedly demanding abolition of the levy was “put at the heart of the Conservatives’ next election manifesto”.
A high court judgment last year described how twins David and Frederick Barclay created a “highly complex” network of offshore trusts to minimise the potential tax bill on transferring assets to the next generation.
“In 2014, the two brothers set about dividing what they had so as to make provision for the next generation and with the intention of avoiding tax liabilities arising either in life or on death,” read the judgment from Jonathan Cohen KC, in finding Frederick Barclay in contempt of court over failed payments to his former wife Hiroko Barclay. “This took the form of a web of highly complex overseas trust arrangements.”
This week Lloyds Banking Group unexpectedly called in loans relating to this complicated corporate structure, taking ownership of parent company Telegraph Media Group (TMG) and sister outlet the Spectator and putting them up for sale. The Barclays are making a last-ditch attempt to regain control but their power has been hit by years of damaging court cases that revealed messy divorces and listening devices deployed on rival family members.
Despite a difficult economic environment, ownership of a British national newspaper remains alluring for media investors and wealthy individuals who want to be considered notable members of society, have meetings with prime ministers and be invited to events.
In the case of the Daily Telegraph, its role is deeply entwined with the Conservative party – with many individuals having a foot in both camps. It nurtured Euroscepticism during the 1990s by employing a young Boris Johnson as a Brussels reporter, who pioneered an entire genre of EU-bashing stories about regulations on condom dimensions.
When Johnson moved into politics, the newspaper gave him a column on a “chickenfeed” salary of £250,000 a year – and when he made it to Downing Street he gave fellow Telegraph columnist Charles Moore a peerage and tried to make him chair of the BBC. In recent years the Sunday Telegraph was the most enthusiastic backer of Liz Truss’ economic policy, which collapsed her government within weeks, while also campaigning on “woke” culture war issues.
Enders Analysis has floated the idea that a wealthy British citizen – such as Jim Ratcliffe, the petrochemicals tycoon bidding for Manchester United – could seek to buy the Telegraph as a “trophy” asset and gain political influence over the Conservative party.
The analysts said the problem with this theory was “there may not be much lemon to squeeze” from the newspaper given the likelihood of a Labour general election victory next year. They argued that while it was attractive to exert media influence over a political party in government, it was much less enticing to have influence over a party facing years in opposition.
The two significant challenges for a potential owner are financial and regulatory. The Barclays paid £665m for TMG in 2004, at the peak of the newspaper market, since when print readership has collapsed across the industry. The group has maintained profitability, albeit aided by endless rounds of redundancies and cost-cutting.
Although in recent years the Telegraph has started to build a successful online subscription model – and its wealthy readers with large pensions are attractive to advertisers selling cruise holidays – there is a limited number of people willing to pay even £400m in this environment for the outlet.
Analysts suggest a billionaire may prefer to pick up the much smaller Spectator, which would be far cheaper but is still an influential read in Tory circles.
One Telegraph veteran talked of potential buyers in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states. Countries rich on oil and gas money have shown themselves willing to spend large sums purchasing western media and sporting institutions. But while Johnson’s government aided Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United, the government of Rishi Sunak may find it harder to deal with such a stark transfer of media power to a foreign nation – although the Independent is already part-owned by a company linked to the Saudi state.
The most probable media industry bidder is the Daily Mail’s parent company, now owned outright by Viscount Rothermere’s offshore family trust. This would enable the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, still at the company, to oversee the combination of a broadsheet with his mid-market newspaper in the same way that Rupert Murdoch’s News UK owns the Times and the Sun.
Goodman, himself a former Telegraph comment editor, said the newspaper retained its influence despite the rise of new outlets appealing to the Conservative base such as GB News. But he cautioned that change could be slow to arrive: “It’s fruitless speculating on changes to the editorial line until you know who buys it.”
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