Magazine article The Spectator

Reclusive Brothers Consign to Dust Their Dreams of a Vast Empire

Magazine article The Spectator

Reclusive Brothers Consign to Dust Their Dreams of a Vast Empire

Article excerpt

The Barclay brothers are famously reclusive characters. Though Frederick and David own four newspapers, they hate publicity. The press is anathema to them. And yet it has been assumed that these shy entrepreneurs want to become serious media moguls. They acquired the European before being forced to close it after sustaining heavy losses. They own the Scotsman and its two sister papers. They also revived Sunday Business, a financial newspaper widely regarded as a succes d'estime. A year ago they set their sights on the Express titles and, although they were rebuffed, it seemed only a matter of time before they spread their tentacles still wider.

All that has changed. Last week I suggested that the Barclays were no longer sure-fire bidders for the Express newspapers when, or if, they come on to the market. Now I have learnt that the brothers have recently received one, possibly two, bids for their newspapers. Though the official line is that they are not interested, it seems that the Barclays are more likely sellers than buyers, and that all dreams of owning a vast media empire have been consigned to dust.

The first bid came from Trinity Minor, owner of the Mirror titles, about two weeks ago, and was made via S.G. Warburg merchant bank. As it happens, Warburg acts for Trinity Mirror as well as for the Barclays. One of the bank's most senior investment bankers is an old friend of Aidan Barclay, son of David, and he brought the two companies together. It is Aidan who runs his father's and his uncle's media and other interests. According to a friend, he had been mightily impressed when the Belfast Telegraph was recently sold for some 300 million. Trinity Mirror's bid for the Barclays' four newspapers (the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, the Edinburgh Evening News and Sunday Business) was between 250 and 300 million. Given that the profits of the Scottish papers are about 11 million a year, and that Sunday Business is not yet making any money, this was a mouth-watering offer. Trinity Mirror's idea was to keep the Scottish titles but sell on Sunday Business, for which there are thought to be several potential suitors. The bid was rejected by Aidan Barclay, though not in any rough way.

I telephoned Andrew Neil, chief executive of Press Holdings, which is the name of the Barclay brothers' media group, to ask him about all this. He said that he had not been involved in any talks with Trinity Mirror but did not deny that they had taken place. I pressed him about a second bid, allegedly made to the Barclays in the last ten days by a Scottish multi-millionaire called David Murray. Mr Murray is the majority shareholder in Rangers football club, a steel baron, and the erstwhile owner of Sunday Scot, a tabloid launched in 1991 that quickly failed. Mr Neil strenuously denied that Mr Murray had made an approach to Press Holdings, and claimed that he had been told by Aidan Barclay only half an hour before that no such offer had been received. He suggested that the story of the bid was put about by disgruntled hacks whom he has recently sacked from the Scotsman. He also speculated that Mr Murray was not rich enough to buy Press Holdings. (This may not be true. The Sunday Times recently estimated his personal wealth at 300 million, and suggested that he is the 85th richest man in Britain.) I have been unable to contact Mr Murray to get his side of the story.

Even if the Murray bid has been dreamt up by victims of Mr Neil's slash-and-burn policies at the Scotsman, it is undeniable that Aidan Barclay entertained an offer from Trinity Mirror. …

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