When a newsman becomes the story, it almost always ends in tears. Just ask Jeff Zucker, the American media boss fronting Abu Dhabi’s highly contentious bid to seize control of the Daily Telegraph.
Only last year, the 58-year-old was preparing to celebrate a decade in charge of CNN, the hallowed rolling news network where power and influence came with a reported annual salary of $6million (£4.8million), and his bonus that could be the same again.
In the salons of Manhattan, fellow New York liberals regarded Zucker as a sort of hero for helping boot Donald Trump out of office by turning his once proudly impartial TV network into a highly partisan mouthpiece for Joe Biden’s campaign in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
While CNN’s ratings weren’t exactly stratospheric – in fact, it had slipped to third in the cable news rankings – his stock as one of the entertainment industry’s foremost schmoozers had never been higher.
Then it all went wrong. A spectacular #MeToo scandal, involving allegations of sleaze, cronyism, and journalistic malpractice (of which more later), saw Zucker forced out in February last year.
For a time, the fallen mogul disappeared from view. But in July came rumours that he was attempting an audacious return to the news business.
Specifically, the Hollywood newspaper Variety alleged that Zucker had been travelling the world with a virtual begging bowl seeking rich and in many cases highly dubious backers to help finance a takeover of his former employer, CNN.
Its dispatch claimed he had made approaches to everyone from Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, to Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve, plus a range of Gulf sheikhs, and the sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Zucker vigorously denied the report, dubbing it ‘patently and aggressively false’. But while ensuing months have produced no concrete evidence of a plot to take over CNN, we can now say with certainty that he has been breaking bread with at least one group of very wealthy Arabs.
That’s because it emerged last week that Zucker has gone into partnership with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose brother is the emir of Abu Dhabi, to attempt a takeover of the Telegraph newspaper, plus its Sunday sister title and the Spectator magazine.
And Zucker is due to fly to London this week to hold meetings with ‘key stakeholders’ just days after promising to preserve the newspapers’ editorial independence.
The proposed deal is hugely contentious, since it will effectively place one of Britain’s most influential news publishers under the control of an undemocratic foreign state which gives every impression of being distinctly less than comfortable with proper journalism. As critics have pointed out, this absolute monarchy is a complete stranger to the concept of Press freedom.
Pressure group Reporters Without Borders ranks Abu Dhabi 145th in the global league table of countries where journalists can operate without restrictions. Little wonder that six prominent MPs last week wrote an open letter demanding that the deal be scrutinised by regulators, saying that it ‘represents a threat to Press freedom in this country’.
In response, Zucker came out fighting, claiming via an interview with the Financial Times that critics of the Abu Dhabi bid were ‘slinging mud and throwing darts’.
But after the Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer last Wednesday wrote to RedBird IMI, the fund formed to mount the takeover, saying she was minded to issue a Public Interest Intervention Notice and trigger regulatory scrutiny of the bid and its potential impact on the UK’s media landscape, Zucker clearly decided it was time to come out of the shadows with his visit to London. Quite apart from harbouring doubts about Zucker’s stupendously wealthy Middle Eastern paymasters, the stakeholders he will meet may also have concerns about his track record at CNN.
His ill-fated reign there, which began in 2013, certainly saw the supposedly high-end broadcaster gain an unwelcome reputation for dumbing down.