Monday 16 September 2019 4:21 pm

Government drops probe into Saudi investments in Evening Standard and Independent

The government has decided not to pursue a probe into Saudi investments in the Evening Standard and the Independent, despite concerns they could harm freedom of expression.

Culture secretary Nicky Morgan today said she will not appeal a court ruling that blocked the government from forcing a full public interest inquiry.

Read more: Independent and Evening Standard could face probe over Saudi stakes

The verdict came after reports from regulator Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) concluded the deals did not warrant further investigation.

However, Ofcom warned the links to Saudi Arabia could pose a threat to press freedom.

“We cannot rule out that there may be incentives and ability for the buyers to alter the accuracy or editorial stances of the publications,” the regulator stated.

Despite this, Ofcom said this risk was mitigated by the presence of “other strong shareholders”, and said the newspapers had measures in place to preserve editorial independence.

It added that the investments did not appear to have had an editorial impact to date.

Jeremy Wright, then culture secretary, first raised concerns in June when it emerged a mysterious Saudi investor had taken 30 per cent stakes in Independent Digital News and Evening Standard owner Lebedev Holdings.

Wright asked both Ofcom and the CMA to look into the investments, but a court ruled in July that the government’s time limit to spark a more detailed investigation had expired.

The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) today described the lack of transparency over the exact identity of the Saudi investors as “concerning”, and called for the newspaper groups to take further action to “mitigate the risk of future inappropriate influence on editorial matters”.

Read more: Evening Standard posts £11.6m loss as it battles with advertising squeeze

A spokesperson for ESI Media, which represents the newspaper groups, said: “We are pleased, but not at all surprised, that the secretary of state has agreed with the conclusions of the CMA and Ofcom. 

“They both found that there were no grounds for the government to take further action in relation to the investments in The Independent and Evening Standard.”

Main image credit: Getty