The identical twins Sir Frederick and Sir David Barclay are the billionaire owners of the Daily Telegraph and Spectator, who live on Brecqhou in the Channel Islands, and in Monaco. Both the Telegraph and the Spectator played leading roles in encouraging their readers to back Brexit.
On the eve of the referendum, the Telegraph published a 2,000-word editorial arguing for Brexit and accusing ‘Remainers’ of trying to scare the public into ‘believing that calamity lies in wait for an independent Britain’. Just two years later, the government is under growing pressure to publish it’s ‘Doomsday Brexit scenario’, which sees food running out in supermarkets and hospitals running out of medicines within days of a hard Brexit.
The editorial argues that ‘a world of opportunity is waiting for a fully independent Britain’, not least because it is ‘a leading economic power’. Optimism based on little more than optimism, it seems. As the Financial Times notes: ‘The Brexit vote two years ago has damaged the UK economy, as a weaker pound has squeezed household incomes and uncertainty has hit investment.’
Finally, the editorial offers its main reason for people to vote leave the EU: ‘its anti-democratic nature – the dislocation between those who govern and the governed… The fact that the EU is a collection of democracies does not detract from the reality that this is a profoundly undemocratic institution.’ This is a fallacy that has been dismissed countless times.
One might wonder how well the Barclay brothers understand the lives of ordinary people from their castle in Brecqhou. They are jointly ranked the 15th richest people in Britain with a £7.2bn fortune according to the Sunday Times rich list. This is despite losing a £1.25bn tax case against HMRC in 2017. HMRC commented at the time that the ruling against the brothers on the payment of interest on VAT repayments ‘will protect billions of pounds to fund the UK’s public services’.
This was just one example of the Barclay brothers’ tumultuous relationship with the tax authorities. The billionaire twins featured in the Paradise Papers which included minutes of a meeting in Hamilton, Bermuda, that show them seeking to keep their financial dealings out of sight. It was also agreed in this meeting that there would be a ‘change of nominee ownership’ of shares from David Barkclay’s wife Zoe to the two brothers. As Prem Sika, Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex, said: ‘Nominee shareholdings add opacity and make it impossible for the authorities to call the ultimate controllers and beneficiaries of financial flows to account.’
Offshore companies also characterise the brothers’ media ownership in the UK: ‘The Telegraph newspapers [Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator] are held offshore, via two Jersey entities, the May Corporation and Press Holdings, then ultimately by a Bermuda-registered entity called B UK Ltd’.
Since 2016, the newspaper owned by these offshore ‘patriots’ has distinguished itself by accusing those who disagree with its line on Brexit of ’treason’. As former Guardian editor Peter Preston wrote in his response to the notorious ‘Brexit mutineers’ Telegraph front page: ‘There once was a time when the Telegraph gave readers a unique insight into the manners, preoccupations and mindset of the Conservative party. No more. Now, seemingly, it’s a bludgeon seeking to impose uniformity in the distant, disconnected name of the brothers Barclay.’
Criticism of the Barclay brothers’ time in charge has come thick and fast, fuelled by the continuing flood of sackings and reshuffles. Perhaps the most sensational departure was that of Peter Oborne, the former chief political commentator of the Telegraph. Oborne wrote for OpenDemocracy about how the brothers had meddled in editorial content, most notably to avoid negative coverage of HSBC – one of the paper’s main advertisers. As the Financial Times reported, this may also have been connected to the fact that HSBC had lent more than £240m to Yodel, a troubled parcel delivery company owned by the Barclays.
The Barclay brothers’ other title, the Spectator, has assiduously promoted Brexit with articles such as ’17 reasons why we should love Brexit’. The Chairman of the Spectator is Andrew Neil, who also chairs the Addison Club, a dining and networking group that Spectator editor Fraser Nelson has called ‘a Spectator offshoot where a group of people from politics, business and the arts get together’. Brexit Bad Boy Michael Gove is known to have attended an Addison Club event, and the original self-styled Brexit Bad Boy Arron Banks was invited by Neil to speak at the club, according to Banks’ book, The Bad Boys of Brexit.
Andrew Neil has been widely seen as promoting a pro-Brexit line in his role as a key BBC political presenter and also been accused by journalist Carole Cadwalldr of breaching the BBC’s code by using his Twitter account to rubbish her vital investigative journalism into illegal activity by the Leave campaigns – journalism that recently won her the Orwell Prize.
Listen, I don't agree with blanket BBC bashing. But I'm forced to make an exception for @afneil. He's clearly in breach of the BBC's own code. And, apart from that, he's doing his viewers a massive disservice. pic.twitter.com/JXM1moU270
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) April 3, 2018
While the Barclay brothers are no doubt relaxed about Andrew Neil’s behaviour, many feel that the BBC should be holding its journalists to a higher standard of impartiality.
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