Financial Times sale – the deal no-one saw coming

Updated: 2015-07-24 17:07

By Chris Peterson in London(China Daily Europe)

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Financial Times sale – the deal no-one saw coming

Copies of the Financial Times newspaper sit in a rack at a newsstand in London, Britain July 23, 2015.[Photo/Agencies]

It was the deal no-one expected.

For years there have been sporadic rumours that the Financial Times, Britain's stately grand dame of journalism, was on the auction block, but for 16 years, Marjorie Scardino, CEO of owners Pearson Plc, stoutly rebuffed all suggestions, saying the salmon-pink FT would be sold "over my dead body."

How times change. She stepped down in 2012 and John Fallon, her successor, conspicuously failed to rule out a sale of the 137-year-old title.

Even so, Thursday morning's announcement by Pearson that it was in the final stages of talks to sell the title, set off a wave of speculation by market and media watchers, and guess what? They all got it very wrong.

The usual suspects were trotted out – former New York Mayor and multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg's eponymous news and market information service, Thomson Reuters and Germany's Axel Springer Group were all immediately touted as potential new owners, with News Corp's Rupert Murdoch an outside possibility.

Even journalists at the FT itself were in the dark, going so far as to suggest in print on Thursday that Axel Springer would win.

Not a chance. Despite a previously expressed desire to buy the FT, Bloomberg himself, a multi-billionaire, has his hands full reorganising his news empire, which is already generating a healthy revenue stream. Thomson Reuters, lagging behind Bloomberg in data sales, may want to continue its focus on improving that side of its business. Murdoch already owns the Wall Street Journal, the FT's great rival, so he probably wouldn't have got past the UK's regulators.

Axel Springer was a hot favourite, with Reuters confidently predicting that the German media group was in the final stages of talks.

Er, no.

When the rabbit came out of the hat, it was the Japanese news and digital media empire Nikkei, that absolutely no-one in London's Anglo-Saxon orientated media world had predicted, who said they would shell out $1.31 billion dollars, with Pearson agreeing to add around £90 million to the FT's pension fund.

The FT's sale to Asia's largest media group is the latest in a long line of British icons that have fallen into foreign owners.

Upmarket car brands Rolls Royce and Bentley are now owned by Germany's BMW and Volkswagen respectively, Land Rover and Jaguar are the property of India's Tata Group, China's Geely Group owns the company that makes distinctive London taxicabs, fellow Chinese automakers are starting to supply the city's distinctive red double decker buses, the Times and Sunday Times newspapers, as well as the lurid Sun tabloid daily, long ago fell into the hands of Australian turned naturalised American Rupert Murdoch, and Reuters, the long-established British-based international news service, was gobbled up, much to the journalistic establishment's dismay, by Canada's Thomson family.

So what's left in the UK media world? Well, the weekly Observer and the Guardian remain under control of a British trust, the Daily Telegraph is firmly in the grip of the secretive British Barclay brothers, while the Independent and its I spinoff are owned by a Russian oligarch.

So what will change for the FT and its average daily readership worldwide of 2.2 million, and the highly successful, which has 4.5 million users?

There have been hints, no more than that, which suggested Pearson was considering getting rid of the paper edition. And what is sure is that had Bloomberg, Reuters or Springer acquired it, there would have been job cuts. But the Japanese group seems to have wanted to buy a thriving business.

For now, I think the newspaper's 400 or so journalists can probably rest easy in their beds tonight. But you know, new owners often can't resist tinkering with their new toys… this space.

Chris Peterson is the Managing Editor for China Daily Europe, based in London. He worked for Reuters and then Bloomberg for over 40 years before joining China Daily. The views expressed here are his own and not those of China Daily.

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