On Thursday, Andrew Neil, the colorful and voluble veteran U.K. broadcaster and chairman of The Spectator, went on BBC2 Newsnight and declared that he would quit the conservative weekly in protest if former CNN chief Jeff Zucker and Emirati vice president Sheikh Mansour acquired his magazine and The Telegraph, the influential Tory broadsheet. “They’re a government,” Neil said of the Emiratis who are effectively bankrolling the deal for Zucker, “and the idea that a government should own newspapers and magazines in Britain, I think, is absurd.” Neil continued: “But they’re not just a government, they’re an undemocratic government. They’re a dictatorship.”
Neil’s cri de coeur was only the latest demonstration in a longstanding revolt among many conservative MPs, journalists and readers who fear a foreign takeover of their beloved media titles—or who are at least weaponizing the provenance of the financing to tut-tut and pout. Last year, Zucker’s RedBird IMI, a joint investment vehicle backed by Abu Dhabi and Gerry Cardinale’s RedBird, had cleverly engineered a $1.4 billion debt-for-equity swap for the titles—repaying Barclay family debts to Lloyds Bank, with a massive assist from Mansour’s IMI, and circumventing an auction contest with U.K. media titans like Lord Rothermere and Sir Paul Marshall in the process. It was a clever bit of financial maneuvering and structure, befitting Cardinale and his operation of former Goldmanites. But even Zucker and his American partners may have underestimated the depth of the reaction in Britain.