Russian billionaire set to buy 'Evening Standard'

Paper's owners receive improved offer fromformer KGB agent
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A Russian billionaire was on the verge of buying London's Evening Standard newspaper last night after submitting an improved offer to Lord Rothermere, chairman of the paper's owners Daily Mail & General Trust. An announcement is expected as early as today.

Alexander Lebedev, who had reportedly had a bid for the Standard rejected by Lord Rothermere late last year, was negotiating on a proposal to acquire a 75 per cent plus one share of the business. A Daily Mail spokesman refused to comment on the negotiations but a decision on Mr Lebedev's offer is believed to be imminent.

Mr Lebedev, 49, is already a media owner in Russia, having founded the news magazine Korrespondent and taken a 49 per cent share in the liberal Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta which he partly owns with Mikhail Gorbachev. Novaya Gazeta is one of the last media outlets in Russia that is critical of the Kremlin.

The paper continues to report on themes the Kremlin-controlled media ignores, including corruption, human rights abuses in Chechnya and the sinister activities of the FSB, Russia's post-KGB spy agency. Its special correspondent Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006 and few doubt her political enemies arranged her execution. Mr Lebedev has offered $1m for information leading to the arrest of her killer.

The Standard is a loss-making newspaper but Mr Lebedev yesterday told Bloomberg that his motives in trying to acquire the paper were not financial. "This is not my way to make money but I'd like to explain to the public that newspapers are something they should love and cherish," he said. "Obviously I would be in charge of the financial side", and would not play a role in the news content, he added.

If Mr Lebedev's ambitions are successful, the deal would mark a further development in Russian influence over the cultural life of the capital. Like Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea FC, and Alisher Usmanov, who has a majority stake in Arsenal FC, Mr Lebedev is an avowed Anglophile.

His son Evgeny, 28, is a well-known figure on the London social scene and has recently been linked with the actress Joely Richardson, 44. He owns the upmarket Japanese restaurant Sake No Hana in central London.

Evgeny, who is understood to have had a role in the discussions over the Standard, is also chairman of the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, which was set up in London in 2006 to raise money for Russian children with cancer. Lord Rothermere's wife, Claudia, is an active supporter of the charity. The foundation has held a series of lavish events including a charity auction at Earl Spencer's Althorp estate, attended by the likes of Salman Rushdie and Orlando Bloom. More recent events at Hampton Court, where Evgeny has a property, have been attended by Madonna and J K Rowling.

Alexander Lebedev reportedly fell in love with London while working in the city as a spy for the KGB, having been based in the Russian embassy until 1992. He joined the KGB's foreign intelligence directorate after having gained a PhD in Economics. More recently he has pursued political ambitions in Russia with limited success, trying and failing to oust the veteran mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov.

Now Mr Lebedev, whose portfolio of business interests includes a 30 per cent stake in Russia's state airline Aeroflot, has turned his attentions to London. According to Forbes magazine, he is Russia's 39th richest man with a net worth of $3.1bn (£2.1bn).

The Daily Mail group may see the advantage of offloading the Standard, having missed the opportunity to sell its regional newspaper arm Northcliffe Media for a reported £1.5bn in 2005.