Jeff Zucker: Tory media titan?
The former president of CNN is poised to become an improbable mogul of British conservative media as he nears an agreement to gain control of The Daily Telegraph, the right-leaning London newspaper.
The Telegraph is a preferred read for the British gentry and a one-time employer of Boris Johnson, the former prime minister whose anti-Europe columns for the paper laid groundwork for Brexit. Its sister publication, The Spectator, a conservative magazine considered one of Britain’s more prestigious media properties, would also come under Mr. Zucker’s oversight, according to the terms of a prospective deal disclosed this week.
The deal is not final. But the prospect of Mr. Zucker, a longtime Manhattanite who has never overseen a foreign-based media outlet, taking charge of a famed British news brand would be the latest twist in a career of reinvention — and an intriguing follow-up to his divisive tenure at CNN.
Mr. Zucker, 58, was criticized by liberals who blamed him for airing former President Donald J. Trump’s unfiltered rallies, and later attacked by conservatives for what they deemed an anti-Trump bias in the network’s coverage. CNN fired Mr. Zucker last year after he failed to disclose a relationship with a colleague, after which ratings and staff morale plummeted.
Now he is looking abroad for a big return to the news business.
The Telegraph went up for auction this year after its owners, the Barclay family, defaulted on a loan. Sometimes called The Torygraph for its influence on British conservative politics, the paper attracted powerful suitors like Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere, owner of London’s Daily Mail.
The auction was paused on Tuesday after Mr. Zucker’s proposal, which relies on roughly 1.1 billion pounds, or about $1.4 billion, provided by RedBird IMI, the media venture company he founded last year, and a major Abu Dhabi-based investment fund. After a series of financial maneuvers, RedBird IMI would assume ownership and management of The Telegraph and The Spectator. Redbird IMI said its Emirati partner would be a passive investor.
Mr. Zucker declined to comment, citing the pending negotiations. But his vision for The Telegraph includes a potential expansion into the United States, where Mr. Zucker believes a market has emerged for a center-right news publication, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking who requested anonymity because the deal was not closed.
Mr. Zucker does not plan to oversee day-to-day news coverage, the person said. Instead, he will focus on The Telegraph’s business strategy and building its presence overseas; he will not relocate to London. Still, Mr. Zucker has a reputation as a hands-on manager, dating back to his 20s when he ran NBC’s “Today” show; he later became chief executive of NBCUniversal before he was forced out in 2011.
The deal could still collapse, and regulatory hurdles await.
RedBird IMI is a joint venture between RedBird Capital, a private-equity firm, and a private investment fund that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, an Emirati royal, runs. The involvement of Middle East interests has raised concerns among members of Parliament about foreign influence over British media. In a letter to regulators, six Conservative Party politicians warned that the proposal by RedBird IMI “represents a potential threat to press freedom in this country.” Any deal could set off further government scrutiny.
In a statement, RedBird IMI said it was “entirely committed to maintaining the existing editorial team of The Telegraph and Spectator” and called their editorial independence “essential.”
If The Telegraph takeover succeeds, it would be Mr. Zucker’s largest undertaking by far since leaving CNN. RedBird IMI, which has said it had $1 billion in backing, has closed only three previous deals, involving a documentary studio, a sports news platform and a children’s entertainment company called Hidden Pigeon.
Details of a potential deal prompted a range of reactions within The Telegraph this week, where some journalists were uneasy about a change in ownership and others welcomed the news, according to a person with knowledge of the internal discussions. The paper’s editor, Chris Evans, told his staff in a memo: “I know no more than you will have read. For now, we must continue with our work.”
Mr. Zucker has kept a low profile since leaving CNN, but he sat for an extensive interview this month with The Financial Times, a London newspaper. Asked by The F.T. whether he missed the action of the news business, Mr. Zucker said he would be open to a return.
“If the right moment were there for me to do something again day in, day out like that, would I accept that?” he said. “Yes, sure. But if that doesn’t come along, that’s OK too. You can’t force things.”