Alexander Lebedev, the owner of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and i, passionately defended free speech yesterday as he delivered the prestigious Society of Editors Lecture in Glasgow.
Addressing some of the most important figures in the British media, Mr Lebedev, who also owns the London Evening Standard, pledged his support for investigative journalists trying to make society more transparent and uncover global corruption.
“I want to invest further in ways to stop corruption on a global scale,” he said. “The millions of bank accounts held by shady people in sunny places are not the right way for our countries to run their economies.”
He compared the threat of global corruption to free societies with the damage caused to South Africa by the apartheid regime. “It’s time that world leaders stand up against global corruption and treat it as apartheid.”
Mr Lebedev praised the British press, contrasting it with the Soviet media he encountered as a young man. “I was essentially brought up in a country where an awful lot of journalism was a bunch of lies,” he said. He spoke of his pride at owning the Evening Standard, the Independent titles and their newly launched sister paper i.
“Newspapers have crucial roles in bringing information to people in a clear, concise way, putting out what is often the first rough-edged page of history,” he said.
“But it is also a defence against tyranny, corruption, injustice and, at times, can and should be a source of light, shining into the dark areas where the powerful and corrupt want to keep things hidden.”
Mr Lebedev talked of his time with the Foreign Intelligence arm of the KGB, when he was posted to London as a news analyst.
“Sorry to disappoint those who think that everyone connected to the KGB is involved in James Bond plots of derring-do. Every morning I would read seven or eight newspapers and mark the pages,” he said. “The British papers in particular opened up to me a whole world of opportunity through their freedom to write and report.”
His reading of the business pages in Britain would help him with his future career, after Mikhail Gorbachev made what Mr Lebedev described as “the biggest sacrifice of power of any one man in the 20th century” by dismantling the Soviet Union. Mr Lebedev and Mr Gorbachev later became publishers of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few pro-democracy newspapers in Russia.
In a reference to a raid by masked police on his National Reserve Bank in Moscow this month, Mr Lebedev wryly opened his address by observing that he had considered wearing a balaclava to the Glasgow lecture to demonstrate his Russian humour.
Thanking Mr Lebedev for his words, Donald Martin, chairman of the Society of Editors, said: “After tonight no one could doubt that you are a force for good.”