Thursday 13 June 2019 4:28 pm

Independent and Evening Standard could face probe over Saudi stakes

The Independent and the Evening Standard could face an inquiry over public interest concerns after a mysterious Saudi investor took major stakes in the titles.

Culture secretary Jeremy Wright today said he is mulling an investigation into the groups behind the two newspapers, amid fears the deals could compromise freedom of expression and the accurate presentation of news.

Read more: Evening Standard set to cut jobs as it merges print and online business

Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel bought a 30 per cent stake in Independent Digital News in 2017. Earlier this year the Saudi national was also unveiled as the buyer of a 30 per cent stake in Lebedev Holdings Limited, the owner of the Evening Standard.

Wright today said he had sent a so-called ‘minded to’ letter to both groups warning the government could intervene in the deals.

The papers have until Monday 17 June to respond to the letter, after which Wright will decide whether to launch an investigation.

“If I decide to issue an intervention notice, the next stage would be for Ofcom to assess and report to me on the public interest concerns and for the Competition and Markets Authority to assess and report to me on whether a relevant merger situation has been created and any impact this may have on competition,” he wrote.

The potential probe comes amid a turbulent time for the publications, which are both owned by Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev.

The Evening Standard, under editor George Osborne, recently announced a string of job cuts as it merges its print and online divisions in a bid to cut down ballooning costs.

Read more: The i newspaper could be sold as publisher JPI Media considers auctioning assets

Earlier this week the London daily and the Independent lost a supreme court appeal against long-running libel proceedings, meaning Lebedev could be hit with hefty legal costs.

But the ruling has been seen as a positive boost for media organisations, as it clarified libel claimants must prove they have suffered “serious” reputational harm.