Investor drops Alex Salmond from role in newspaper bid

By Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

Image source, Reuters

The Norwegian investor planning to take control of the owner of The Scotsman newspaper, has dropped his plan to put Alex Salmond in the boardroom chair.

Christen Ager-Hanssen said the former first minister was "a great guy, but I decided that [would be] too politically infected".

His comments came as he sought talks with Johnston Press on how he could help restructure the firm financially.

Mr Salmond described it as a "silly season" story.

Mr Ager-Hanssen owns 20% of Johnston Press shares.

He has said that he intends to build that up to nearly 30%.

He told BBC Scotland: "Now that we're going into restructuring, we'd like to have a board with more knowledge and understanding about the technology element of media rather than a public figurehead."

Image caption,
Mr Ager-Hanssen already owns 20% of Johnston Press shares

The digital entrepreneur began to push the board last October, but stopped when he found a "poison pill" defence against hostile takeovers - a clause in bond-funding that would hand the company to lenders if the board were to be ousted.

The company publishes the 'i', The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, the Yorkshire Post and about 200 local titles.

It faces the risk of default on £220m of bonds, due for repayment in less than a year. It has been trying for months to reach a deal with the bond-holders.

Mr Ager-Hanssen's recent renewed interest in the company, as reported in the business press, was followed by a sudden spike in its share price on Thursday morning.

From a low of 3p, which valued the whole company at less than £3m, it trebled in price during the day, before settling back to 6p - 72% above its opening price.

Mr Ager-Hanssen told BBC Scotland that it was not his company, Custos Group, that was trading the shares.

He has written to the board, saying he would like to open talks.

'No dialogue'

He said: "We don't have any dialogue, but my intention is to get that dialogue going and get some insight into that information about the company."

In response to the price increase, Johnston Press issued a statement to say it was aware of no reason why the surge had taken place.

It added: "The company continues to explore a number of strategic options for the restructuring or refinancing of its bonds and confirms that no agreement on these potential options has been reached."

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Mr Salmond has been hosting a show on RT since November

The statement continued: "The company received a letter from Custos Group on Friday 20 July, and notes the press commentary on this over recent days.

"The company confirms that it is not in receipt of any plan or proposal from any party for a refinancing or restructuring of its debt. Further announcements will be made as appropriate.

"As stated previously, any proposal that results from these discussions will remain subject to negotiation and consent of relevant stakeholders, and there can be no certainty that a formal proposal will be forthcoming."

Mr Salmond, who lost his Westminster seat in 2017's general election, said in November he would take on the role if plans led by Mr Ager-Hanssen were approved by shareholders, but added that he would not have editorial control.

Mr Salmond said the papers would be "a champion of the community of interests they represent".

Since losing his parliamentary seat, Mr Salmond has hosted a chat show at the Edinburgh Fringe and a weekly radio programme on LBC. In November, he started hosting a talk show on the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT.

Responding to the latest development, Mr Salmond described the article as a "silly season" story.

He said: "Mr Ager-Hanssen, as major shareholder in Johnston Press, is now focused on restructuring the ailing group rather than changing the board.

"I wish him luck in what will be a very hard task."

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.