Saudi Arabia’s influence over British media has become a security concern, a UK court was told yesterday. Papers part owned by the kingdom through a series of “unconventional, complex and clandestine” deals could be used to exert editorial influence that could have “national security implications”, the government’s legal representative David Scannell said.
The warnings were made at a hearing of the competition appeal tribunal looking into the purchase of shares by Saudi Arabia in the Evening Standard and the Independent. Russian billionaire Evgeny Lebedev, who controls both publications, sold 30 per cent stakes in them to offshore companies fronted by a Saudi businessman in 2017 and 2018. The Standard and the Independent are said to be unsure who ultimately employs the businessman.
The purchase was reported in February when it was found that a mysterious offshore buyer who used a Cayman Islands company to mask his identity as the major shareholder had close ties to the country’s state-owned bank and Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman.
Scannell told the court that Riyadh could now potentially exert editorial influence over the news outlets and that the share in the UK’s two major newspapers has “national security implications”. Concerns were also raised over Lebedev’s reluctance to answer questions over the deal with the Saudis.
Scannell suspects that the companies registered in the Cayman Islands were used to obscure the true identity of the owners of the papers. “These brass-plaque companies were incorporated for the express purpose of obscuring the true acquirers,” said Scannell.
The Guardian reported that lawyers for the Evening Standard and the Independent avoided answering direct questions about the true identity of the owners. The British daily mentioned that Lebedev has close ties to Saudi Arabia and that the Independent editor, Christian Broughton, had visited the Saudi capital to meet business partners.
Prior to the paper’s sale, the Independent went into partnership with a Saudi media firm to launch four news portals in Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Urdu.