Magazine article The Spectator

For Sale: Two Independents and the Observer (Reduced)

Magazine article The Spectator

For Sale: Two Independents and the Observer (Reduced)

Article excerpt

The Independent titles, journalists assume, are up for sale. Barely a day passes without a new rumour. The Barclay Brothers are said to be about to make a move. Mohamed Al Fayed is reputed to be licking his lips. According to another recent report, Jonathan Fenby, a former editor of the Observer, may be nosing about on behalf of an Asian investor - possibly Robert Kuok, proprietor of the South China Morning Post, which newspaper Mr Fenby happens to edit.

The belief that the Independent and its Sunday sister are likely soon to come under the hammer is based on impeccable logic. The two newspapers are shipping water, each close to an all-time circulation low. They have both been subjected to ruthless cost-cutting by their owners, Mirror Group Newspapers and Independent Newspapers plc of Ireland. Though both titles are edited in a rather spirited way, their want of proper journalistic resources is painfully evident. The Independent on Sunday, for example, has only three financial journalists: its City pages are farmed out to a New York-based financial news agency called Bloomberg. Surely, the argument goes, this state of affairs cannot last.

Then there is a subplot involving the Observer and the Independent on Sunday in which the two papers merge. The Observer, whose sales show no sign of breaking out of a range of about 450,000 copies, is losing some 10 million a year. The Independent on Sunday sells about 170,000 copies fewer but is losing much less money. On the other hand, it appears to be heading nowhere. A marriage of the two titles would seem to make sense, particularly from the point of view of the Observer, whose owners, the Guardian Media Trust, can ill afford losses of this magnitude.

Let us consider potential suitors one by one. First the Barclay Brothers, the secretive identical twins who own the Scotsman titles and the European. Their new editorin-chief Andrew Neil is believed to be on the look-out for acquisitions. The Independent titles might seem to be the obvious object of desire for the ambitious brothers had we not Mr Neil's recent categoric statement to Press Gazette, the journalists' magazine, that he and his masters are not interested. However, some may prefer to regard Mr Neil's denial as less than watertight.

Then we have Mr Al Fayed, who makes no secret of his wish to acquire the Independent titles. He has recently met Tony O'Reilly, whose Irish Independent group speaks for 46 per cent of the two Independent newspapers. What came of this encounter I do not know, but my feeling is that Mr Al Fayed is rather unlikely to emerge as their owner. The biggest of several impediments lies in his own heart. Does this fledgling publisher really wish to pay a very large sum of money for two loss- making titles? Mirror Group's unofficial valuation of the two Independent titles is between 75 and 80 million. This is a considerable amount of money for two newspapers jointly losing about 5 million a year, whose circulation is almost rock bottom.

But perhaps an Asian billionaire would find such losses more bearable? According to a recent report in Press Gazette, the aforementioned Mr Fenby has travelled from Hong Kong to London to size up the Independent titles, possibly on behalf of a rich Asian publisher. …

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