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Jeff Zucker: ‘It’s going to be easier to invest in journalism outside UK’

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Ex-CNN president Jeff Zucker has suggested critics of his failed Telegraph deal were simply “scared” of it.

Zucker also defended the involvement of UAE money in the takeover bid, which was ultimately thwarted by UK political opposition and new legislation being brought to ban foreign governments from owning UK newspapers and current affairs magazines.

He said his biggest lesson from the process was that “it’s going to be easier to invest in journalism outside the UK”.

Zucker was speaking at the Sir Harry Evans Investigative Journalism Summit in London on Wednesday.

He is chief executive of Redbird IMI, which is a joint investment vehicle between US private equity firm Redbird and Abu Dhabi-backed vehicle International Media Investments, which also owns The National newspaper. The fund is majority-owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, vice president of the United Arab Emirates.


Jeff Zucker: Telegraph was ‘commercial opportunity’

Zucker told the Sir Harry Summit Redbird IMI was a “completely commercial enterprise” that saw The Telegraph “as a commercial opportunity”.

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“I’ve said this before too – whether people wanted to hear it was a different story,” he said.

He said this was demonstrated by Redbird IMI’s takeover of UK-based TV production company All3Media, which he revealed was expected to close on Wednesday.

Zucker added: “Titles like The Telegraph in the English speaking world do not come up very often. It’s probably one of the top ten brands in the world, in the English-speaking journalism world.

“We saw a commercial opportunity and we decided to jump at it because we thought that through our experience, our capital and our patience, we could invest, which is not something that happens in UK journalism very often, in fact 1,200 journalists in the UK lost their job last year. We committed to spending tens of millions of pounds to invest to grow.”

BBC News analysis editor Ros Atkins, hosting the panel, suggested others were “not quite as convinced” by that but Zucker responded: “I don’t know that they didn’t think it was a good idea. I think they were scared of it.”

Asked his opinion on there being criteria on who is allowed to own news media, Zucker said: “In a capitalist society, whether it’s the US or the UK, I think the free market should determine what happens in those circumstances. Look, we were a private entity and made the strongest possible representations to the government here in the UK that there would be no influence and we were willing to make those legally binding.”

He said it was “reasonable” to be asked to make those assurances but added that “it’s also reasonable for others to listen to the answers – whether they were willing to listen to the answers here on that is a different story”.

Zucker: Investment in journalism ‘has to come from somewhere’

Zucker continued to defend the deal after Nishant Lalwani, chief executive of the International Fund for Public Interest Media, said his non-profit organisation accepted money from governments but only those in the top half of the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

Lalwani said: “We do have a very particular governance structure to ensure that whoever our donors may be, they have absolutely no say in the organisation. First of all, we don’t take money from governments that are 160 or 180 on the Press Freedom Index like the UAE are,” he said, adding that they also have a legal framework in place to ensure donors have no editorial influence.

Zucker responded: “First of all, our money comes from a privately-held company in the UAE. I understand that you may not see that distinction but we obviously do.

“Second of all, the board that we were willing to put in place would have had a high quality of people on it who were willing to put their sane reputations on the line with legally binding underpinnings that would have resulted in the loss of our ownership if we didn’t hold true to it.

“Number three – listen, I spent 35 years of my own personal integrity on the line in running newsrooms that were owned by worldwide conglomerates.

“And so I think the combination of all of that, we believe, was incredibly strong and should have been reassuring. And I think if we’re going to think about the future of news and journalism, we’re going to have to also understand that it needs investing and that’s got to come from somewhere.”

Telegraph Media Group and The Spectator are expected to go back up for sale shortly with interested parties expected to include GB News investor Sir Paul Marshall, DMGT chairman Lord Rothermere and National World chairman David Montgomery.

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