Independent confirms sale talks with Lebedev

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The Independent Online

Former KGB agent and Evening Standard owner Alexander Lebedev is in exclusive talks to buy The Independent and Independent on Sunday, it was confirmed today.

Independent News & Media (INM) said it had struck an exclusive - but non-binding - agreement with Mr Lebedev as it holds discussions over the potential sale of the national newspapers.

The Russian oligarch already owns London's Evening Standard after snapping up the loss-making paper in January for a nominal fee.

Shares in Dublin-listed INM raced 7 per cent higher on today's confirmation of the talks.

But the group stressed that talks were still at an early stage and "subject to due diligence, agreement on the financial consequences of the transaction for INM, and a number of substantive contractual conditions being fully satisfied to all parties".

"As such, there is no certainty that these discussions will lead to the finalisation of a transaction of any kind," it added.

The exclusivity agreement with Mr Lebedev runs until February 15.

Sale discussions are said to have been rekindled after being put on hold in the summer as INM focused on restructuring its mammoth debt pile.

It is understood that INM's recent debt restructuring has paved the way for sale talks to restart.

The move would give Mr Lebedev his second purchase in the UK newspaper market after the Evening Standard buyout.

A deal bringing the Independent newspapers into the same fold as the Evening Standard would also be an easy logistical fit, as INM titles already share the same offices as the London paper after relocating to space with the Standard's minority owner Associated Newspapers in Kensington, west London.

The future of the Independent and its Sunday counterpart have been widely speculated on over the past year as its Dublin-based parent has suffered losses amid an advertising slump.

Around 90 jobs have been cut at INM's national newspapers as part of cost-cutting plans and INM has faced shareholder calls to close or offload the titles.

Mr Lebedev became the first Russian oligarch to own a British newspaper title when the Standard deal was completed.

He made his fortune mostly through stakes in banking and insurance companies and the Russian airline Aeroflot.

But he is not a newcomer to the industry, having founded the news magazine Korrespondent.

He is also the major shareholder, alongside former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Mr Lebedev has made major changes to the Standard since he took over as chairman, making the title free in October in an attempt to boost its circulation from 250,000 to more than 600,000.

It is also abandoning its noon edition to concentrate solely on the later evening issue from January 2.

INM reported a bottom-line pre-tax loss of 161.4 million euros (£143.5 million) last year, a deterioration of 165 per cent on 2007.