Adam Barnett writes:
Bizarre goings on at the Daily Telegraph.
Fresh from running a stern telling off by the Saudi Arabian ambassador two weeks ago, the paper on Thursday carried a PR statement by the theocratic Kingdom announcing ‘reforms’ in its governance and economy.
The Telegraph report claims the ‘exclusive’ statement was given to the paper amid rumours of a potential coup by rival factions in the country’s ruling elite.
“Saudi Arabia has issued a manifesto for change in the face of rumours of coup plots and international pressure,” writes Telegraph Middle East editor Richard Spencer, from the Saudi capital, “ranging from economic reform to the role of women and allowing human rights groups into the country.”
“The lengthy statement given to the Telegraph in response to rumours of opposition was prepared by members of the royal court and of the economic council, which was created by Prince Mohammed bin Salman and is overseen by him.”
If this sounds like the Telegraph is being used to settle internal Saudi regime disputes, there are signs the paper is a willing participant.
Language in the piece, laying out the reforms in long quotations, is warmly positive, with sentences beginning, ‘In what would be a major step forward…’, ‘It addresses full-on the longstanding criticism…’ etc.
To make things explicit, Spencer writes: “The lower price [of oil] had created a ‘window of opportunity’. Stress would now be laid on foreign investment, particularly in partnership with traditional allies like Britain, the United States and France, and particularly in the field of technology.”
Now the picture comes sharply into focus.
As the Telegraph concedes, the statement ‘does not directly address questions of democratic reform or relieving what critics say has been a crackdown on human rights activists and pro-democracy campaigners since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011’. (The words ‘what critics say’ are a tell-tale sign of walking on hot coals. )
It even quotes two paragraphs justifying the death sentence handed down to Ali Mohammad al-Nimr for attending a protest when he was 17.
What about women’s rights? Sketching the Kingdom’s patriarchal reality, Spencer adds: ‘But the document points to advances in education – where women now outnumber men at university – health and social care.’
Pictures also tell the story.
In print we have a black-and-white family shot of the late King Abdullah with his fours sons, next to a larger full-colour picture of the youthful Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a king in waiting (and potential business partner for Brand Britain).
Online we have a photo of ‘Saudi boys’ painting a mural of the young prince. Isn’t this laying it on a bit thick? What’s going on here?
As mentioned, Thursday’s story comes after the Telegraph published a column by Saudi ambassador Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz on October 26, lamenting poor relations after the UK government dropped plans to help train Saudi prison officers.
Abdulaziz, referring to criticism of Saudi’s human rights record by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and others, wrote in head prefect tones: ‘We will not be lectured to by anyone’.
Three days later, another Telegraph ‘exclusive’ revealed prime minister David Cameron had visited Saudi Arabia for ‘secret’ talks to patch up relations after the prison friodour.
So what’s the deal? Is the Telegraph acting as part of the foreign office’s spin machine?
What a way to mark the annual Remembrance of the First World War, when such, ahem, ‘resource-sharing’ between state and press was routine.
Or could it be that the Telegraph hopes to replicate their current £800,000 advertising deal with the Chinese government, replete with favourable coverage and a regular propaganda supplement?
(Along with China Watch, a digest of state-run China Daily, the budget-conscious Torygraph carries Russia Beyond the Headlines, the counterpart for Russia’s Rossiyskaya Gazeta.)
‘Foreign investment’ indeed!