Elon Musk’s $44bn takeover of Twitter is a “chilling development” in billionaires’ desire to increase their political influence by buying up many of the world’s largest and most influential media brands, a leading British analyst has warned.
Claire Enders, founder of Enders Analysis, said the super-rich have long sought to buy newspapers to help push their agendas and it was now possible to “count on one hand the big media brands that aren’t owned by an oligarch or other billionaire”.
“It’s another sign that the super-wealthy wish to control assets that give them an extra level of power,” she said. “Whatever they may say, that’s the reason why they buy them.
“It is now unusual for major news media not to be owned by a billionaire, and that is why the Guardian [owned by the independent Scott Trust], the Financial Times [owned by the employee-owned Japanese media group Nikkei] and the BBC are consistently shown to be the most trusted news brands.”
The billionaires who now control vast swathes of the media landscape include:
The world’s richest person struck a deal to buy Twitter – journalists’ and politicians’ preferred medium for sharing stories – for $44bn last week, promising to unleash its “extraordinary potential” to boost free speech and democracy across the world.
Jeff Bezos/Washington Post
The Amazon founder and second-richest person in the world ($169bn compared with Musk’s $252bn) bought the Washington Post for $250m in 2013. When Bezos took over, the Post was bleeding money and he said the business model was “upside down”.
He said of his decision to buy the paper: “I had to do some soul-searching … Is this something I want to get involved in?. I started to realise this is an important institution.
“It is the newspaper in the capital city of the most important country in the world. The Washington Post has an incredibly important role to play in this democracy. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.” Within three years the paper had doubled its internet traffic and turned a profit.
“I know that when I’m 90, it’s going to be one of the things I’m most proud of, that I took on the Washington Post and helped them through a very rough transition,” Bezos said in an interview in 2018.
Rupert Murdoch/Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, several Australian titles
The last standing of the original media barons, Murdoch took over running the News, a small Adelaide newspaper following his father’s death in 1952. He expanded to a portfolio of newspapers across Australia, before entering the UK with the purchase of the News of the World in 1969. In the 1970s he moved to New York, buying up media assets starting with the New York Post.
In 2017, Murdoch sold the bulk of his family’s 21st Century Fox entertainment businesses to Walt Disney in a deal worth $66bn, but kept the newspapers and the right-wing US news channel Fox News. “Are we retreating? Absolutely not,” he said at the time. “We are pivoting at a pivotal moment.”
Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp
Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook while studying psychology at Harvard University in 2004. Within a month, half of the undergraduate population had a profile. Now about 2.9 billion people – more than a third of the world’s population – are signed up.
Zuckerberg’s social empire extends beyond Facebook to Instagram (which it bought in 2012) and WhatsApp (taken over in 2014).
Late last year, Facebook changed its name to Meta to reflect the Zuckerberg’s ambitions to dominate the “metaverse” – which he says is “the next frontier”.
Zuckerberg, the world’s 12th richest person with a $78bn fortune, controls 58% of the voting rights of Meta shares, effectively giving him personal control of all three platforms.
The platforms have been accused of influencing the news stories that users are exposed to, and blamed for helping the spread of misinformation, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Lebedevs/Novaya Gazeta, the Evening Standard, and The Independent
The Russian oligarch and former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev is a part-owner of the investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In 2009, he bought the Standard for £1, and the following year he bought the Independent for £1. The titles are run by his son, Evgeny, and the family has pumped more than £100m into the businesses.
The Standard was a stalwart supporter of then-London mayor Boris Johnson, endorsing his 2012 reelection campaign. In 2015, Johnson and Lebedev camped out together on the streets of London to draw attention to homelessness among army veterans. When Johnson joked that he had fallen in a puddle, Lebedev quipped: “I saved your life.”
Evgeny was given a knighthood in 2020. Last week, Downing Street missed the deadline for publishing the security advice it received about granting the peerage, after Johnson denied intervening when intelligence services said it would be a security risk.
Evgeny has since sold stakes in the newspapers but remains the largest single shareholder in them.
Lord Rothermere/The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Metro and the i
Jonathan Harmsworth, a great-grandson of one of the Mail’s co-founders, this year succeeded in taking the paper’s owner, The Daily Mail and General Trust (DGMT), private after 90 years as a listed company by paying £1.6bn for the 63% of the company he did not already own.
Press Gazette estimated that he owns about 39% of the UK national newspapers sold every week in the UK, compared with 29% in 2010. This compares with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp on 27.5%, down from about 30% a decade earlier.
The Barclay Brothers/The Telegraph and the Spectator
The billionaire twins David and Frederick Barclay bought the Telegraph titles and the Spectator magazine in 2004. The brothers, who lived on the island of Brecqhou in the Channel Islands, previously owned The European, The Scotsman and the Sunday Business. David died last year. Frederick and his daughter, Amanda, had sued a group of David’s relatives over allegations of bugging conversations at the Ritz hotel, which the brothers had previously owned.
A billionaire consortium/The Economist
Italy’s billionaire Agnelli family paid £287m to increase its stake in the Economist to 43.4% in 2015 when Pearson sold its shares after selling the FT. The other shareholders are a collection of ultra-wealthy families: the Cadburys (chocolate), the Rothschilds (banks) and the Schroders (banks) as well as some staff and former employees.
Patrick Drahi/Libération and L’Express
The French–Israeli telecoms billionaire owns stakes in the French newspaper Libération and magazine L’Express via his Altice company. Last year he took an 18% stake in BT, sparking speculation of a potential takeover bid.
Laurene Powell Jobs/the Atlantic
The billionaire philanthropist and widow of Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, Powell Jobs bought a majority stake in the Atlantic in 2017.