An Oligarch on Fleet Street

Alexander Lebedev, since last year the owner of the free Evening Standard, may now buy The Independent. He has just sold his share of Russia’s state-owned airline, Aeroflot, with the personal blessing of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a deal worth 300 million euros.

The British papers suspect that Lebedev has now obtained the necessary cash that will allow him to go ahead. The question on everyone’s mind is whether the Russian is the saviour of the British press or its nemesis.

The Standard would probably have gone out of business without Lebedev. The Independent, too, is almost bankrupt. Negotiations on the sale have been underway for months. A deadline was originally set for Monday but the company has now extended it to this coming Friday, February 26. Although the deal may take a while, few doubt that it will materialize eventually.

The Russian billionaire’s efforts have sparked hope and consternation in equal measure among British publishers. He once worked in London for the KGB. Since then he has became a billionaire with bank deals and an investment in energy giant Gazprom. In a partnership with former President Mikhail Gorbachev, Lebedev acquired a large stake in the Moscow opposition paper Novaya Gazeta.

“I want to help preserve a democratic institution in England,” Lebedev insists. “Free media are as important as the parliament and political parties.”

It’s as if a British distillery had set out to teach the Russians how to make vodka.

The fears of Standard employees that Lebedev would convert the paper into a PR machine for modern Russia have not come true. According to an editor at the newspaper, Lebedev does not determine how it reports on the Kremlin or British foreign policy. “We are not told to write certain stories, nor are we told not to.”

Some in London believe that Lebedev is the Kremlin’s Trojan horse, and that it plans to use him to polish its tarnished image in the West. Others suspect that he intends to use the newspapers to print compromising material about top politicians in Moscow. This, they say, would allow him to protect himself against those in power by threatening to use the material for blackmail.

Another theory holds that Lebedev, who once campaigned unsuccessfully to become mayor of Moscow, craves political influence. According to yet another rumor, he buys newspapers to promote his other businesses: his bank, NRB, his agricultural holding company and his airlines. The rumors are as varied as they are unproven.

Journalists with the liberal, left-leaning Guardian spent an entire year searching for scandals, dubious interests or dirty deals. “We found nothing,” says Stephen Brook, an editor at the paper. In fact, he says that the cantankerous and conservative Evening Standard has even become more politically balanced under its Russian owner, while at the same time lightening up its content to include more sex, more style and more fashion.

Lebedev himself simply laughs off the many theories that have been concocted about him. “It’s all nonsense. The British press has inspected me with X-ray vision.”

He envisions a media empire that would include free newspapers in the Moscow metropolitan area and an international research network within a major media group. “You need super journalists and a super brand for that,” he says.

Although The Independent is young – it was only founded in 1986 – it has cult status and is intelligent and urbane. Unfortunately, it also happens to be losing about 1 million euros a month.

The fact that Lebedev had allegedly been given the Standard for only one pound and that he converted it into a free newspaper in October was a blow to the self-confidence of the editorial staff. But since the free paper began appearing in the late afternoon at newspaper stands and kiosks, circulation has risen from 250,000 to more than 600,000. Lebedev wants to increase circulation to about 1 million.

The Standard benefits from the fact that the competition has folded. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the publishers of the Daily Mail, who competed with free city newspapers for years, closed their free papers when losses became too high.

This posting is an edited version of a story in Der Spiegel of February 19.

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4 responses to “An Oligarch on Fleet Street

  1. Perhaps if, eventually, he gives up his Russian citizenship he may buy a peerage.

    • Good idea. I will pass it on to him through my agents in London.

      See Fred Langan’s response below.

  2. The worst thing that ever happened to British papers was the Wall Street coup that stripped Conrad Black of the Telegraph. The second worst thing was Conrad Black marrying Barbara Amiel.

    • You may be right about Point One.

      You are totally wrong about Point Two, the victim of a rare combination of envy and jealousy.