CARACAS (Reuters) - British businessman Robert Hanson is an unlikely Venezuelan media mogul.
A longtime staple of London gossip columns who for years enjoyed the company of high-profile models, Hanson is the son of the late British industrial magnate Lord Hanson who made a fortune in corporate buyouts and was a prominent backer of conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Robert Hanson’s holding company last year acquired Venezuela’s best-selling newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, despite its worsening financial results and stringent currency controls that have frequently left foreign companies unable to repatriate profits.
Though they make for strange bedfellows, Hanson, 54, and the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro appear to have harmonious dealings.
Ultimas Noticias has named two ruling Socialist Party members to key posts, including former elections adviser Hector Davila who now serves as the company’s president-editor.
Dozens of reporters have resigned since the acquisition by Hanson, whose core companies are not focused on either media or Latin America.
Reporter Jose Rafael Mata said he was ordered to pull from the website a story about complaints by a former minister that the Socialist Party was stifling internal dissent. He tweeted what he said was a picture of a handwritten note that contained the order, and cited the incident as one of the reasons he later resigned.
Hanson bought the paper for the equivalent of $98 million, according to company documents reviewed by Reuters. That came despite Ultimas Noticias’s 92 percent profit drop that year and its sizeable offshore debt.
Hanson, whose umbrella group Hanson Family Holdings includes a financial services firm, a reusable packaging company, and a logistics firm, did not respond to questions.
However, Davila says Ultimas Noticias remains critical of the government, denies it has softened its stance to win favor with officials and says the criticism is based on emotion rather than facts.
“If you’re looking for complaints about the government, pick any edition of the paper and you’ll have (as many as you want),” said Davila, a computer scientist and life-long supporter of leftist causes.
In an interview, he leafed through editions of the paper and pointed to stories on problems ranging from decay of public hospitals to corruption by state-backed community groups.
He also said the only instructions he received from Hanson were to run a balanced and profitable newspaper.
In addition to Ultimas Noticias, two more of Venezuela’s best-known media groups have gained new owners in the past 20 months. They also have overhauled coverage and, according to reporters, softened criticism of the government.
Those two media groups, television station Globovision and newspaper El Universal, both declined to comment for this story.
Reuters could not independently confirm allegations that the state is involved in changes to media content. The information ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The changes have not, as some critics contend, removed all opposition voices from the media - which were once so openly anti-government that they helped stir up a brief coup in 2002 against then-President Hugo Chavez.
Daily newspaper El Nacional retains an openly adversarial stance to the government as do various smaller, opposition-linked papers. To some degree, op-ed pages in a number of other papers still feature Maduro’s critics.
Nevertheless, the often sharp editorial changes that took place after changes in media ownership have left Maduro’s adversaries convinced his government was involved.
For example, when deadly violence broke out after an opposition protest in February, Ultimas Noticias played down the killing of two people by leading its front page with Maduro saying the country faced a coup, according to a Feb. 14 statement signed by 96 of the paper’s reporters that was published by the National Union of Press Workers.
And 24-hour news station Globovision, which for a decade provided minute-to-minute coverage of anti-Chavez protests, did not provide real-time coverage of the outbreak of violence and rarely did so during the three months of frequently violent opposition demonstrations that followed.
Globovision had no live coverage of the press conference called by opposition leader Henrique Capriles several days later to discuss the situation. The only live images of the event were broadcast over Capriles’ own web stream.
“Censorship affects the poorest, because they should have a way to express themselves when the government doesn’t solve problems,” Capriles said in June, accusing state officials of “buying media so they can quiet the voice of the people.”
He later reiterated this view to Reuters.
Critics of Venezuela’s media say it needed to change after more than a decade of unfair and unethical reporting about Chavez.
Luisana Colomine, a journalist who covered two presidents before Chavez and the start of his government, said she “never saw such firm and wholehearted opposition to any government” and cited private media’s support for a crippling oil industry strike in 2002-2003 as an example of unethical behavior.
“To assume political positions against a government - that’s not journalism,” said Colomine, who went on to work for the government and now teaches at the Bolivarian University, which was created by Chavez.
The government has over the years made little secret of its desire to exert more control over the media. Officials in 2007 began describing a government strategy of “communicational hegemony” to instill socialist values.
That year, Venezuela refused to renew a broadcast license for opposition television station RCTV, igniting a wave of protests and condemnation by international press freedom groups.
Globovision was bought last year by a little-known group of investors who ran an insurance company.
The insurance firm, Seguros La Vitalicia, in the previous five years posted cumulative losses equivalent to $4 million, according to a Reuters review of information posted on the state insurance regulator’s website.
Seguros La Vitalicia did not respond to requests for comment.
Globovision directed Reuters to the most prominent shareholder Raul Gorrin, who did not answer questions on editorial policy or respond to queries on how the purchase was financed.
Daily newspaper El Universal in July said it had been bought by Spanish holding company Epalisticia, which was established in July 2013 with 3,500 euros ($4,690) in working capital, according to Spain’s mercantile registry.
The company’s representative, Jose Luis Basanta, did not respond to emailed questions.
The newspaper’s newly appointed editor, Jesus Abreu, said in an interview published in El Universal that the “editorial line that the paper has maintained for 105 years, based on impartiality, will be completely maintained.”
However, El Universal within weeks had stopped publishing editorials by dozens of long-running columnists with outspoken anti-government views and in September fired one of the country’s best-known cartoonists.
Several columnists said they received identically worded letters that said the change was due to an “editorial restructuring.”
Faced with a reader backlash, the paper ran a front-page editorial saying it had declined to publish the columns because they did not follow the code of ethics. Abreu, who was appointed in July, did not respond to requests for clarification. Though its op-ed page is now less critical of the government, it generally runs a column carrying an opposition viewpoint each day.
Additional reporting by Julien Toyer in Madrid and Tom Bergin in London; Editing by Kieran Murray and Martin Howell