SMG ready to dispose of publishing interests

SMG, the cross-media group that owns Scottish TV and Virgin Radio, is to dispose of its publishing assets to focus on broadcast interests.

An asking price in excess of £200 million is being sought for interests that include the Scottish newspapers the Herald, the Sunday Herald and the Evening Times. SMG's publishing arm also includes a range of magazines and online businesses.

SMG's decision means that it will hold on to its Scottish TV licence, despite recent speculation that it was likely to sell. SMG said that its regional publications do not fit with its cross-media strategy. It also has debts of £401 million to pay off.

George Watt, the group financial director, said: "For four or five years we have focused on building a cross-media offering, particularly in national markets. Radio is 100 per cent national, TV is 85 per cent national but publishing is only 10 per cent national. Cross-media deals are focused on big advertisers; large FMCG advertisers, for instance, are not investing heavily in regional newspapers."

Watt added that SMG would look to expand its radio interests. The proposed Communications Bill, which is likely to become law next year, had raised concerns at SMG over whether it could own regional publications as well as radio stations, he said.

SMG said that it is looking to sell its publishing arm as a whole rather than breaking it up. Speculation is mounting that the regional newspaper groups Newsquest and Johnston Press are the leading contenders to buy SMG's newspapers but this could raise competition issues.

Financial groups such as Candover and KKR are expected to bid. The Barclay brothers, who own the Scotsman titles and The Business, have also been linked to a bid.

In addition to the three newspapers, SMG's publishing interests include magazines such as Scottish Farmer and Classic Record Collector. Its broadcast interests include a 29.5 per cent stake in Scottish Radio Holdings, which owns Radio Borders and Radio Clyde. It also owns Ginger TV, the production company previously owned by Chris Evans.

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