Independent’s deal with Saudi publisher back under spotlight

Journalists voice concern over editorial freedom of UK news firm’s Middle Eastern editions

Concerns have been raised over assurances of editorial independence in a deal the Independent has signed with a Saudi Arabian company, which will result in Middle Eastern editions being operated by a company with close ties to the Saudi government.

Two candidates for a job overseeing the company’s new Persian language site told the Guardian they walked away because they were not persuaded that it conform to the Independent’s existing editorial standards.

The deal, announced earlier this year, will see the Independent license its brand to a Saudi Arabian publisher with close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The young ruler has come under strong criticism in recent weeks following the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi security officials.

The Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) will provide its own staff for the standalone sites, which will appear under the Independent masthead. Due to launch in the coming months, they will be published in Arabic, Turkish, Urdu and Persian. The company’s former chairman became Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture this summer.

SRMG is closely entwined with the political and PR aims of the Saudi state and its activities go beyond the remit of a traditional publisher. When not working on joint ventures with the Independent, SRMG has also helped fund the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and has reportedly donated around $10m (£7.6m) in return for the former prime minister’s assistance with Saudi Arabia’s modernisation programme.

The Independent’s editor, Christian Broughton, is understood to have recently reassured concerned London-based staff that the new sites will be as independent as their name suggests, despite their links to the Saudi government.

But two people approached by the Independent to apply for a job overseeing the Persian language site – aimed at Iranian readers – said they walked away after failing to receive enough assurances about the site’s editorial independence from the Saudi state, given that Saudi Arabia is locked in proxy war with Iran across the Middle East.

“The Independent’s editorial oversight would be limited to a single ‘consultant editor’ who would liaise between the SRMG team and the Independent’s editorial leadership,” said one.

“When I asked whether the consultant editor would be empowered to kill a story that did not meet the Independent’s editorial standards, I was told that it was not yet clear whether the consultant editor would have that authority. It was pretty clear that the Independent’s editorial control would be nominal.”

The source said that during an initial conversation with executives at the Independent, it was made clear that the parent publication will have limited involvement in the day-to-day publication cycle. Bloomberg has also licensed its name to SRMG for a new TV channel.

“There is an emerging pattern where SRMG signs a lucrative deal to secure the rights to a respected media brand, such as Bloomberg or the Independent but ensures that the operation of the new publication is handled by an SRMG-hired team,” they said.

“Such arrangements are concerning given the questionable editorial track record of SRMG, particularly when publishing or broadcasting in languages other than Arabic and for audiences beyond Saudi Arabia. There would be an uproar if the likes of Bloomberg or the Independent signed a media deal with Russia’s RT.”

Last year, the Independent’s Russian owner Evgeny Lebedev sold 30% of the news organisation to a largely unknown Saudi businessman named Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel.

Shortly after this investment, two directors joined the Independent’s board. One of them is DJ Collins of PR firm Milltown Partners, a former New Labour aide who sits on the board of the Tony Blair Institute, which also received donations from SRMG.

A spokesperson for Milltown, which has previously been named as a potential representative of the Saudi state in the UK, said the business did not currently have any contracts with the country. They acknowledged having previously had clients in the region but chose not to elaborate further.

Staff at the Evening Standard, also owned by Lebedev, have separately raised concerns about the reasons for commissioning a special report on the war in Yemen by respected defence journalist Robert Fox, which appeared in the London paper in May.

The piece made no mention of the fact that Fox was accompanied by Lebedev in his tour of Saudi-backed Yemeni forces, with the newspaper proprietor posting pictures on Instagram of him posing with soldiers in a pickup truck.

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Birthdays in a war zone. #Yemen 🇾🇪

A post shared by Evgeny Lebedev (@mrevgenylebedev) on

The success of the foreign-language Independent venture will depend on the staff chosen by SRMG to produce the local language content. The Guardian understands that an Iranian journalist, Camelia Entekhabifard, has been approached by SRMG to edit the the Independent’s Farsi website, which is expected to be based in New York. She works for Iran International, a London-based TV news station, which the Guardian revealed receives its funding from the Saudi royal court.

In the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Entekhabifard retweeted messages promoting the Saudi version of Khashoggi’s disappearance on social media, downplaying the likelihood of his murder.

There are no signs that the Independent’s English-language parent site has adapted its coverage of the Saudi government or Khashoggi’s disappearance. It has also recently hired more reporters in the Middle East, while Evening Standard editor George Osborne has spoken out in defence of Khashoggi.

A spokesperson for the Independent said: “As we made clear at the time the partnership was announced, the foreign language sites will be owned and operated by SRMG, and all editorial practices and output will conform to the standards, codes and ethos of the Independent.”

“This will mean that the Independent’s journalism becomes accessible to many millions more readers, bringing our values and high-quality journalism to regions that need greater media plurality.”


Jim Waterson and Saeed Kamali Dehghan

The GuardianTramp

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