How faith drives bidder for Telegraph who wields growing influence on Tories

<span>Paul Marshall stood for parliament for the Social Democratic party in the 1980s and was a major funder of the Lib Dems in the 2000s.</span><span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Paul Marshall stood for parliament for the Social Democratic party in the 1980s and was a major funder of the Lib Dems in the 2000s.Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

What links Russell Brand’s baptism in the Thames with Sir Paul Marshall, a co-owner of GB News and potential purchaser of the Telegraph? Both have found salvation through the strand of evangelical Christianity promoted by one incredibly influential church in central London.

Marshall, a hedge fund boss, is not yet a household name. Yet he is on his way to building a media empire and accumulating political power to rival Rupert Murdoch’s. First he launched the website UnHerd, aimed at Westminster opinion-formers, then he helped fund the populist rightwing news channel GB News, and in the coming weeks he will launch a bid to buy the Daily Telegraph.

Taken together, the trio of outlets would give him enormous influence over Tory party members when they come to choose Rishi Sunak’s replacement as leader. Conservative officials whisper about him being the kingmaker in what’s left of the party after the next general election.

Related: ‘He wants to shape wider culture’: Why Paul Marshall is turning from GB News to the Telegraph

But what sets Marshall apart from other media owners is the way his belief in evangelical Christianity influences his work in media and politics.

Alice Enders, a media analyst, said this was unlike most owners of British newspapers, who are motivated by raw power and wealth: “Rupert Murdoch is in thrall to the religion of capitalism, and I would assume that to be true of others too.”

“The root is my faith,” Marshall said in 2012 when discussing his work with the schools charity Ark. “I am a committed Church of England Christian, I believe we are all made in God’s image, that we all have gifts, and that education is the key to realising our potential.”

Marshall does not follow a musty version of Anglicanism where fundraising means holding a cake sale in aid of church organ repairs. He worships at Holy Trinity, Brompton (“HTB”), an influential parish church in Knightsbridge, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, south-west London..

HTB – which recently pushed back against plans for the Church of England to bless same-sex relationships – is the centre of C of E evangelicalism and the former church of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also gave birth to the wildly successful Alpha course, responsible for converting millions of people around the world to Christianity – and for encouraging talking in tongues. One of those who found faith through the course was the adventurer Bear Grylls, an occasional attendee at HTB, who last week baptised Brand in the Thames.

Marshall, whose personal wealth is estimated at £800m and is one of the UK’s biggest philanthropists, sits on the board of HTB’s wildly successful church outreach programme and is a donor to its associated theological training college. He also funds the Centre for Cultural Witness, a project with the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The religion journalist Tim Wyatt said HTB was known for having “hyper-wealthy individuals” such as Marshall among its congregation, which had led to concerns about their influence within the C of E. “Those with the biggest chequebooks could be allowed to wield excessive influence and pursue their views, especially when they tip over into political extremism,” he said.

In response, a friend of Marshall said: “Paul is a supporter of HTB as that is the church he attends. It is a mainstream, dynamic part of the Anglican family and he isn’t particularly interested in Church politics.”

Marshall’s belief is not a private passion. In speeches and interventions over the years, the would-be media baron has quoted the biblical call for “faith, hope, charity”. Despite being a proponent of free-market capitalism – which he calls “the greatest instrument of poverty relief that the world has ever seen” – he has no time for the individualistic libertarianism proposed by the likes of Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman, and has condemned the employment practices of Amazon.

Instead he praises the Victorian philanthropist Joseph Rowntree, and has said that traditional British liberalism “rests on the Judaeo-Christian understanding that we are all, in moral terms, fallen creatures”.

Marshall’s modern interpretation of that tradition involves opposing “progressivism”, “woke bureaucrats” and corporate lobbyists. It also means fighting “cancel culture” – especially after his son Winston quit as Mumford & Sons’ banjo player after endorsing a book that criticised anti-fascist groups.

In a 2021 essay for his UnHerd site, Marshall harked back to the religious radicals of the English civil war era under Oliver Cromwell, when “calls for freedom were inseparable from the deep Christian faith of the protagonists”.

This “Judaeo-Christian” vision of western civilisation last year led Marshall to cofound the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) with the controversial Canadian academic Jordan Peterson and the evangelical Conservative MPs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates. It also fed into accusations of Islamophobia when Marshall’s semi-private Twitter account engaged with posts describing Muslim immigration as a stage of “Islamic conquest”, predicting civil war in Europe, and calling for the mass expulsion of migrants. (Marshall apologised and said he was not endorsing the messages.)

Though the hedge fund boss has been involved in politics since the 1980s – during which time his faith wavered and he stood for parliament for the Social Democratic party – the vehicle for his views has changed over time. During the 2000s, he was a major funder of the Liberal Democrats, co-authoring the Orange Book, which became the guiding document of the party’s pro-market faction. This enabled Nick Clegg to become leader and paved the way for coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives.

But by the time of the 2016 EU referendum, he had had enough, and donated £100,000 to the Brexit campaign. After the UK voted to leave the EU, he set out to reshape a media that he considered hostile to Brexit and which failed to understand the loss of community cohesion.

His bid for the Telegraph, made with financial backing from the US billionaire Republican donor Ken Griffin, is due imminently, and the winner is expected to be named by July. A source close to Marshall downplayed the idea that he would use the paper as a vehicle for religion, insisting that he “sees the Telegraph primarily as a business venture, although it aligns with his values”.

But if he is successful, every Conservative MP would start taking Marshall’s calls – and it could be the latest vehicle for his stated desire to make “free enterprise once again a pillar of human flourishing”.

“It will need people outside politics to lead a movement of change and renewal,” he said in a call to arms late last year. “And it will need people of integrity inside politics to carry it through.”