Jeff Zucker hits out at rival Telegraph bidders for ‘slinging mud’

Jeff Zucker has accused rival bidders for the Telegraph of “slinging mud”, as the former CNN boss promised the UK government he would guarantee the newspaper’s independence.

Zucker’s Abu Dhabi-backed RedBird IMI company emerged in pole position to acquire the media company this month, causing concern among Conservative MPs over the future of a newspaper traditionally aligned with their party.

Zucker told the Financial Times he would “make sure that [the UK government] understand that we’re prepared to make commitments that should assuage anyone’s concerns”.

Some Conservatives and rival media outlets have warned that the links to Abu Dhabi could pose a risk to the Telegraph’s editorial independence and threaten national interests. 

Lloyds Banking Group took control of the Telegraph Media Group this summer after the Barclay family — which had owned it for two decades — failed to repay debts of more than £1.1bn. The bank then launched an auction to sell the business, which includes the Spectator magazine as well as the Telegraph newspaper.

RedBird IMI interrupted the auction by agreeing to provide funding to the Barclays to repay the loans “in full” and then take over the media group. Lloyds is now assessing the proposed RedBird IMI deal.

Zucker questioned the motivation of rival media bosses whose outlets were warning of the threat to media freedom from his proposed deal while also mounting their own bids.

“There’s a reason that people are slinging mud and throwing darts — [it’s] because they want to own these assets,” he said. “And they have their own media assets to try to hurt us.”

Other bidders for the paper include hedge fund billionaire and GB News co-owner Paul Marshall, as well as two other newspaper owners, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and Lord Rothermere’s DMGT.

Zucker said that some of the “people throwing stones now tried to approach us before to see if we would work with them on this bid. So let’s just be clear about that. We were fine in the eyes of our competitors before we were trying to do this on our own.”

Zucker promised to create an editorial advisory board that would uphold the independence of both the Telegraph and the Spectator magazine. He added there were no plans to change the management or the editorial team at either title.

“We feel confident that with those moves that there should be no question about the editorial independence of the Telegraph or Spectator,” said Zucker, who ran CNN as well as the Today Show and NBC News in the US. 

“I’ve spent 35 years running or supervising news organisations, and there’s nothing I understand more than editorial independence. I have staked my reputation and legacy on not allowing editorial interference.”

Redbird IMI has given six commitments to ensure editorial independence of the Telegraph, including a legally binding shareholders agreement and a separate legal undertaking to the UK government.

Redbird IMI is a joint venture between the US private equity firm run by former Goldman Sachs partner Gerry Cardinale and Zucker, alongside International Media Investments, which is controlled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who also owns Manchester City football club.

Zucker said IMI had no say in the running of its businesses, and was only involved “in the entrance and the exit” of a transaction as an investor in the fund.

IMI would “remain a fully passive investor” and would “not exercise any control of the Telegraph or the Spectator”, he said 

Nadhim Zahawi, a Conservative MP, acted as an “intermediary” on the deal, according to Zucker. 

Zucker said the Telegraph was “a great, iconic brand that stands for quality journalism” that could compete in the US as an alternative to the more liberal New York Times and Washington Post.

“We believe there is real potential to . . . establish the Telegraph as a much more global media brand. We’ve thought for a long time that the real gap in the US marketplace was a very strong centre-right media brand.”

Cardinale, founder of RedBird Capital, told the FT that “as a private equity investor, we’re not focused on influencing editorial or content curation”.

Cardinale has built a reputation as the go-to partner for celebrities keen to build their own businesses. “We don’t tell Ben Affleck or Matt Damon what movies to make at Artists Equity; and we don’t tell LeBron James and Maverick Carter what projects to take on at The SpringHill Company,” Cardinale added, referring to RedBird’s other investments.