Tribunal scuppers investigation into ownership of ESI Media

Mark Johnson's picture
by Mark Johnson

The UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal today sided with ESI Media over an investigation launched by former Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright into the group’s ownership.

Earlier this year the Home Office officially launched an investigation into the sale of stakes in the Independent and the Evening Standard newspapers to an investor with strong links to Saudi Arabia.

Home Office investigation 

The culture secretary at the time, Jeremy Wright, ordered the competition and media regulators to investigate the sale of 30% holdings in the publications by Russian owner Evgeny Lebedev.

In December 2018, Lebedev sold 30% of his company, Lebedev Holdings, to a Saudi businessman, thought to be Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel of NCB Capital, who had ties to the country’s state-owned bank, for £25m. 

A year earlier, in 2017, Lebedev was also reported as having sold a stake in the digital-only Independent to the same Saudi businessman.

As Culture Secretary under former PM Theresa’s May’s Government, Wright launched a public interest intervention notice. 

Cayman Islands companies

This was mainly because the investments were made though companies registered in the Cayman Islands, which could hide the identity of investors and because Wright failed to be persuaded by Lebedev’s guarantees that editorial independence at the publications would not be compromised.

Following today’s ruling an ESI Media spokesperson said, “We are delighted by today’s judgment by the Tribunal. 

“We have been clear that the Secretary of State’s decision to issue his Intervention Notice relating to minority investments in Lebedev Holdings Limited and Independent Digital News and Media Limited was disproportionate to the facts, unfair and a waste of public money. 

“The Tribunal agreed with us that the deadline to make a ‘Phase 2’ reference to the CMA expired on 1 July and we are pleased to have resolved this issue.

“There are no public interest concerns arising from these investments as editorial independence and freedom of expression have always been, and continue to be, critical to our publications. 

“We have no further comment to make.”

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