The Economist alla Italiana

EDITOR'S BLOG: Another prized British media asset has been flogged off - should we cheer?

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 18 Aug 2015

So The Economist has gone Italian, as the Agnelli clan moves in on the 172-year-old magazine (or newspaper, as it likes to call itself). We can now look forward to recipes for agnolotti with grated truffles and bagna cauda - Turinese specialties both - in its pages. Whether it continues its longstanding and entirely laudable campaign against Silvio Berlusconi or keeps the current PM Renzi honest will be interesting to observe.

With the offloading of the FT a couple of weeks back to the Japanese outfit Nikkei this is another priceless Brit media gem -  and there aren’t many of them about - that has fallen into foreign hands. Should this bother us? Quite frankly, if ITV went to an American cable operator, as is currently rumoured, you could hardly argue our national cultural heritage was being imperilled. If Putin or Robert Mugabe bought The Daily Express we should cheer. (The hacks who work there certainly would.) Our football teams of any value are mostly foreign-owned. And it makes me relieved that Chelsea with its pompous, female-doctor-bullying manager is owned by a Russian. They are less squeamish about this kind of behaviour.

John Elkann, the grandson of Gianni Agnelli and the current Fiat clan boss seriously coveted The Economist and he looks like a very smart operator. His father is a journalist. He’s been on the Fiat board since the age of 22.   Not only does he have the alarmingly forceful and able Sergio Marchionne at the helm of Fiat, but in running Exor, the family’s private money pot, he is making many sensible buying and selling decisions. There’s a rather good piece including a rare intervew with him here.

Take his investment in London property for example. He owns a big chunk of Almacantar, the outfit that is turning Centre Point from dismal offices previously occupied by the CBI into super lux apartments. When the hideous mess around Tottenham Court Road is finally finished you’ll be able to get from Heathrow to your penthouse pad overlooking Soho by Crossrail in a twinkling of an eye. (Assuming you haven’t come in by G4 to Luton or Biggin Hill. Or not quite put it down smoothly, Bin Laden-style on the runway at Blackbushe.)

We can admire Elkann’s nouse. He’s extricated his company from many of those dodgy cross shareholdings that typified the bad old ways of Italian business. And with a big chunk of change burning a hole in his pocket he’s hardly going to be putting it into making Cinquecentos in a factory - or worse still shares in a factory - in Dongguan. After the fiascos of recent months and their bent markets, I wouldn’t trust the Chinese politburo with my cash ever.

For all the problems related to unaffordable housing in the UK, we should feel pleased here that we are regarded as a safe and trustworthy home for investment. And George Osborne is showing some encouraging signs of milking wealthy foreigners for their fair share of tax, as well.

BTW, my favourite Economist story goes like this. A number of years back the paper had a massive subscription drive in India, where carrying The Economist under your arm makes you look really smart. It has epic snob value. So the subs team pulled out all the stops and took all the rupees up front from eager would-be readers.

After a couple of months it became apparent that all was not going to plan. Furious punters were calling in demanding to know where their magazine was. After a detailed investigation it became apparent what was going on. The enterprising Indian posties, seeing the value in their delivery bag, were renting out the copies of The Economist to their mates for a few rupees a time. The dog eared volume from the first week of March would finally arrive with the reader who had actually paid for it sometime in August.   

That sort of thing would, of course, never happen in Italy.

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