Telegraph Bidders’ Déjà Vu: Sky News Arabia’s Empty Promises of Editorial Independence

As the takeover of the Telegraph faces UK Government scrutiny, the UAE-backed Redbird IMI has been making assurances of upholding the newspaper's editorial integrity. But Telegraph's potential buyers have made promises about safeguarding editorial independence before, only to have those promises broken. The case of Sky News Arabia, whose coverage of sensitive issues has been heavily influenced by its Emirati owners, highlights a stark contrast between promises and reality.

Redbird IMI's Promises of Editorial Independence

In a recent BBC interview on January 5, 2024, RedBird IMI CEO Jeff Zucker claimed the UAE would be a "passive investor" in the Telegraph despite providing 75% of the funds. Zucker emphasized that the newspaper's journalists would enjoy complete editorial freedom, backed by "incredibly robust legally underpinned editorial protections."

To fortify their editorial protection assurances, RedBird IMI proposed the establishment of an editorial trust board comprising "independent public figures of senior standing" with expertise in media, journalism, compliance, governance, or ethics. This board would purportedly protect the Telegraph's editorial independence, handle disputes, and approve the appointment of an editor. Zucker asserted that, collectively, these measures make the Telegraph's protections of editorial independence unparalleled among UK newspapers.

The Sky News Arabia Parallels

The promises made by RedBird IMI bear a striking resemblance to those made by ADMIC, the parent company of IMI, in the launch of Sky News Arabia.

The Telegraph bidder, Redbird IMI, is a joint venture between US private equity firm Redbird and International Media Investments (IMI). IMI is a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (ADMIC). ADMIC is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, vice-president of the UAE and a brother of the Emirates' ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

In the case of Sky News Arabia, a news channel launched in 2012 with a 50/50 joint venture between ADMIC and British Sky Broadcasting (BskyB), ADMIC vowed to deliver "fair, accurate, consistent, and independent news" reporting. Nart Bouran, head of Sky News Arabia, and Sultan Al Jaber, Chairman of ADMIC and Sky News Arabia, boasted about creating an editorial advisory committee, a unique feature in the region, comprised of independent personalities, to safeguard journalism.

(Bouran and Al Jaber have been involved in the RedBird IMI's bid for the Telegraph. Bouran became IMI CEO in March 2020 and held the position until January 2023. Al Jaber is currently chairman of IMI. He is also the UAE's Minister for Industry and Advanced Technology and head of head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). Al Jaber was the president of COP 28.)

Deja Vu from Sky News Arabia

On May 6, 2012, Sky News Arabia started broadcasting to over 50 million homes across the Middle East and North Africa. Promising objective and impartial news delivery, Sultan Al Jaber said in his launch speech: "Our market research uncovered a strong appetite from Arab audiences for a high calibre, independent news channel / …/. I am confident Sky News Arabia will become an icon for objective news reporting," Sky News Arabia, Al Jaber explained, is supported by an editorial advisory committee, a first for the region, to ensure the channel delivers balanced, accurate, and consistent news.

"Sky News Arabia will offer the [Middle East and North Africa] region a fresh approach to television news with an independent editorial mandate at the heart of everything we do,"  said Nart Bouran at the channel's launch. "With a focus on truly independent reporting, it gives opposing points of views the same amount of on-air time and even appointed an editorial advisory committee "to ensure that the channel remains unbiased and balanced."      

"We do have something new that we've started at the channel that nobody else has, which is an independent editorial advisory committee of very well-known personalities, respectable personalities from the Middle East and Europe," Bouran said in June 2012. "These guys are our board of trustees. They are there to make sure that we maintain our editorial balance and the editorial standards that we set for ourselves as a company from day one."

In March 2013, Sky News Arabia was launched in the UK and became available on the Sky platform.

A Case Study in Editorial Compromise

However, these promises were not kept. Despite ADMIC's initial promises of "independent," "impartial," and "accurate" reporting, Sky News Arabia's coverage of sensitive issues suggests its UAE owners are using their media assets to advance their own political agenda.

For instance, Sky News Arabia's coverage of the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 closely followed the propaganda of the Saudi government, a close ally of Abu Dhabi. A review by the Telegraph indicated a complete lack of critical questioning of the Saudi government's versions of events.

Contrary to its commitment to objective reporting, Sky News Arabia's reporting aligned closely with the Saudi government's narrative, downplaying the severity of the incident and failing to challenge official accounts. The channel did not question the various versions of events offered by Saudi Arabia and hosted interviews discrediting reports of Khashoggi's murder. As evidence of Khashoggi's brutal end mounted, the Sky News Arabia reporting shifted towards applauding the official Saudi Arabia response.

The Abu Dhabi-backed bidders for the Telegraph have a history of making promises about editorial independence that have not been upheld. The glaring parallels with Sky News Arabia raise critical questions about the fate of the Telegraph.