Rowland gets nod to take over Observer

Fleet Street is about to have a new baron. He is "Tiny" Rowland, head of the huge London-based trading conglomerate Lonhro, who has gotten the government go-ahead to be the next proprietor of the London Observer.

Roland W. Rowland is probably Britain's best-known businessman -- and its most controversial. Before Trade Secretary John biffen told Parliament that his takeover bid for Britain's oldest established Sunday paper was acceptable, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission spent several weeks hearing evidence from people who said Rowland should never be given control of the Observer.

In the end, the commission voted seven to one in Rowland's favor, but laid down a number of conditions that must be met, including rock-solid guarantees of the paper's editorial independence.

Rowland was once described by former Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath as personifying the "unacceptable face of capitalism" -- a phrase that stuck and was used vigorously by opponents of his Observer bid, including senior executives on the paper.

Lonrho has extensive business and commercial interests in Africa. Observer staff, including editor Donald Trelford, argued that the Observer's long-established liberal approach to African affairs would be endangered by a successful Rowland bid. Despite Rowland's great love of Africa, the concern is that he has too great a financial interest there to be truly objective.

Rowland responded by listing a number of guarantees. These include the appointment of a group of independent directors to the Observer board.

A majority of the independent directors would be able to veto the appointment of an editor proposed by Rowland. Journalists would be consulted before the appointment of an editor. Biffen is expected to endorse these guarantees.

Defenders of Rowland's business methods say his first- hand knowledge of Africa and its leaders is unrivaled.

Rowland is a committed capitalist; he has a record of pressing for the promotion of talented Africans in his business concerns. He is deeply opposed to apartheid and, during the period of sanctions imposed on white-controlled Rhodesia he made certain that Lonrho did not trade with that country.

Heath's castigation of Rowland as displaying an "unacceptable" capitalist face had much to do with the Lonrho chief's expensive life style and his unusually ruthless methods as a business operator.

Rowland takes a close personal interest in the content of his papers but insists that he does not interf ere in editorial content. It seems the government agrees.

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