Saudi buying of UK media for PR campaign raises scrutiny

The Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) is said to have close links to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A recent partnership deal between a Saudi media group and The Independent to launch Middle Eastern editions has sparked worries about the British online newspaper's editorial freedom. 

The agreement will see The Independent license its brand to the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), which has close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It will lead to the creation of four Independent-branded news websites in Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Persian by the end of 2018.

On Friday, two candidates for a job overseeing The Independent's Persian language site told The Guardian that they had walked away because they were not persuaded that it would conform to the daily’s existing editorial standards.

They also expressed concerns about SRMG's "lucrative" deals to secure the rights to media brands such as The Independent and Bloomberg.

"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," they said.

One of the sources raised questions about the future of The Independent’s editorial standards under the new licensing deal.

“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,” he said.

“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. There would be an uproar if the likes of Bloomberg or the Independent signed a media deal with Russia’s RT.”

According to The Guardian, formerly Tehran-based journalist Camelia Entekhabifard has been approached by SRMG to edit the Independent’s Farsi website, which is expected to be based in New York.

Entekhabifard works for Iran International, a London-based TV news station, which the British newspaper revealed receives its funding from the Saudi royal court.

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

Amid growing tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia has resorted to a media propaganda campaign against the Islamic Republic.

Earlier this month, The Guardian revealed that Saudi Arabia provides funding for Iran International, a London-based TV news station.

A source who has worked with bin Salman said that the channel’s money came from the Saudi royal court, estimated to be about $250 million.

The TV station gave airtime to the spokesman for the "al-Ahwaziya" terrorist group who praised the deadly terror attack in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on September 22.

Iran filed a complaint with the UK’s media regulator Ofcom against the Saudi-funded channel.

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