Business secretary Lord Mandelson has described the takeover of the London Evening Standard by former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev as “not ideal”.
He also questioned what the Evening Standard’s deceased former proprietor would have made of the decision of the Daily Mail and General Trust to sell a controlling stake in the paper in January.
Tory Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Mandelson at question time whether the Government was consulted about the takeover of the Evening Standard by the Russian billionaire.
Mandelson replied: “The Government were not consulted as such. The circumstances of Mr Lebedev’s purchase of the Evening Standard are, I think, that after making considerable profits on the paper the previous owners made clear they would close it if this transfer was not made.
“Mr Lebedev seems to have been the only option in keeping the paper alive and I think we would all agree, would we not, that maintaining the London Evening Standard in existence is in the interests of us all, the public interest and journalism in this country.
“It is perhaps not ideal, but what is ideal in these days in the newspaper world? We could only wonder what Vere Rothermere would have made of it, but that is, I’m afraid, a matter now only for speculation.”
Viscount Rothermere’s son, the fourth Viscount Rothermere Jonathan Harmsworth, is the current chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust.
Mandelson told peers he had “the power to intervene in any media or newspaper merger which gives rise to specific public interest issues such as concerns about accurate presentation of news or free expression of opinion in newspapers”.
Tory Baroness Rawlings asked if the Government had any information that “would lead them to give credence to the recent rumours that Al Jazeera is interested in purchasing ITV or Channel 4”.
Mandelson replied: “I hadn’t had any information about such an exotic proposal as Al Jazeera taking over ITV and I will be keeping my ears open for such a proposal.
“I will be permanently vigilant in pursuit of the powers I have but these are necessarily limited powers.
“They do not extend to any member of the Government being able to sort of act on personal whim or prejudice.
“We have to have a clear public interest case made to us as the basis of any intervention but of course I would be open to receiving such concerns should they arise.”
Labour’s Lord Campbell-Savours asked Mandelson: “Before alarm bells ring about Al Jazeera taking over ITV, would you have in mind that Al Jazeera was the only thoroughly objective newsgathering service during the course of the recent dispute in Gaza.”
Mandelson replied: “I described it as exotic, not objectionable. I hear what you say and will take that into account should any eventuality arise concerning that broadcasting organisation in the future.”