Stephen Glover: It's Lebedev or bust for ailing Standard
Monday 19 January 2009
Alexander Lebedev looks the last person in the world one would like to own the venerable London Evening Standard. He is a Russian oligarch – not my favourite breed of men. He worked as a young man for the KGB – not my favourite organisation.
Moreover, he has limited experience of running newspapers in Moscow. How can he possibly turn around the Standard given that its parent company, Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) – one of the two best-run publishing groups in Britain – has failed to do so?
Nor does Mr Lebedev's son Evgeny appear to be one's ideal cup of tea. If the father knows relatively little about newspapers, his 28-year-old offspring would seem to know almost nothing, and yet he is expected to play a major role in a Lebedev-owned Standard. Evgeny is spoken of as a bit of a playboy. According to the Daily Mirror – though this may be an apocryphal story – two years ago he was seen at a party at the Serpentine Gallery in London, apparently clutching the bottom of his then companion, the former singer Geri Halliwell.
My God, can this be happening? What can Viscount Rothermere, DMGT's controlling shareholder, be thinking of – selling the 181-year-old Standard to an ex-KGB Russian oligarch with an allegedly playboy son? His father cherished the paper. The present Lord Rothermere served as its managing director as a young man. And yet this family heirloom is apparently being offloaded to the Lebedevs.
I say "apparently" because the Russian or his representatives have been spilling the beans before an agreement was signed, and this has upset Lord Rothermere and senior DMGT executives. They feel they are being bounced into a deal before the small print has been settled. This may be how Russian oligarchs do business, but DMGT is miffed. A deal is still likely – with DMGT retaining 24.9 per cent of the paper – for the simple reason that the company needs a buyer, and there are probably no other plausible candidates apart from Mr Closure waiting in the wings.
Let me take a deep breath. It looks bad. No one can deny that. And yet I recall an article written by Peregrine Worsthorne in The Spectator when Conrad Black got control of The Daily Telegraph and its Sunday sibling in early 1986. Perry despaired that Lord Hartwell should have been forced to sell out to Mr Black, as he then was, whom he judged vulgar, and not at all the sort of person to direct a great British newspaper. This was a brave thing for Perry to write since he was at that time a columnist on The Sunday Telegraph. Mr Black responded by making him editor of that paper. In the end he turned out to be a good proprietor, though admittedly he was led off in handcuffs in the end.
Might one be in danger of writing off Mr Lebedev too carelessly? In the way that not every Norman baron was an absolute rotter, there must be one or two half-decent Russian oligarchs. He has had the courage to criticise Vladmir Putin without pushing his luck too far. One or two people have told me that he is very civilised, though I imagine he has an ego the size of Mont Blanc. As for Evgeny, any of us might become a playboy if we had a billionaire dad, and just conceivably Geri is more interesting than she looks. Before long he will probably be a member of the Beefsteak Club, and holding poetry readings in his house.
Then there is the welcome suggestion put out by Media Guardian that Geordie Greig, the editor of the Tatler, is likely to be the next editor of the Standard if the deal goes through. A case might be made against Mr Greig on the basis that he has had no experience of editing a newspaper, and is a rather laid-back figure. Nor is the Tatler the world's most elevated publication. Whatever else, though, Mr Greig is very far from being a barbarian. If appointed, he would probably be a faithful custodian of the paper and its values.
A Lebedev-Greig line-up might work. What are the alternatives? Notwithstanding repeated cutbacks, the Evening Standard has mislaid tens of millions of pounds over recent years, and is still losing over £10m a year. When the economy was racing along, DMGT could absorb this punishment. But now its regional newspaper group, Northcliffe Newspapers, is producing a fraction of the profits of two years ago. Even the highly profitable Daily Mail is making less money than it was. DMGT's share price has been slipping alarmingly. The company cannot afford to continue bearing the losses of the Standard. In the end, Lord Rothermere has shown himself surprisingly unsentimental and, from his shareholders' point of view, no doubt gratifyingly so. The health of DMGT comes before his affection for the Standard.
The problem may not be so much with Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev as with the paper itself. I repeat: how can they reverse huge losses if DMGT has been unable to? The Standard is not at all a bad paper. Somewhat perversely, it has grown livelier over the past couple of years despite the successive cutbacks imposed on its editor, Veronica Wadley, who has fought a spirited rearguard action. Editorially it has not been dominated, as some have suggested, by the right-wing agenda of the Daily Mail and its editor Paul Dacre, also editor-in-chief of the Standard. It exudes a relaxed and metropolitan spirit. There aren't hundreds of thousands of disgruntled liberal potential readers out there to be captured, since the Standard has already set its cap at them.
And don't forget the two afternoon freesheets, Rupert Murdoch's thelondonpaper and DMGT's own London Lite, which have made Ms Wadley's life virtually unendurable over the past two and a half years by snitching her readers. (Was it wise of DMGT to launch London Lite?) For the foreseeable future, a Lebedev-owned Evening Standard will also have to contend with these two giveaways. The logic is probably to put as much water as possible between it and the freesheets by taking the paper upmarket and making it into a kind of daily Spectator with a dash of Tatler thrown in, plus must-read City pages – a package which some people won't mind paying good money for. Even if this were to work, though, and even if there are to be further cutbacks, I can't see the Standard doing much more than clipping its losses.
That won't matter much to Mr Lebedev as things stand. He has lots of money. London is pretty well the capital of the world, and owning its only newspaper – the sole survivor of 14 such titles at one time – gives him a platform to establish himself in Russia and elsewhere as an international figure with political sway. The time may come when he has no further use for it, and God alone knows what will happen to the newspaper then. As it is, Alexander Lebedev probably offers the Evening Standard the only future it has.
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