Russian pays 'nominal sum' for Evening Standard

The Evening Standard newspaper is to be sold to Russian oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev for a "nominal sum", its current owners said today.

The Daily Mail & General Trust said London's week-day newspaper would be passed into the hands of Evening Press, a company formed by Mr Lebedev and his son Evgeny Lebedev and owned by Lebedev Holdings.

Its Associated Newspapers division is to retain a minority share of 24.9 per cent in the new firm, called Evening Standard Ltd.

The Evening Standard deal is the first time a Russian oligarch has owned a British title.

In a move designed to address fears about the potential difficulties this could pose, DMGT said the Evening Standard would establish a new editorial committee to "safeguard the principle of editorial independence".

Mr Lebedev said: "We are strong supporters of a free and independent press and we greatly admire the Evening Standard as an iconic publication with its pedigree of fine journalism and commentary.

"We are committed to strengthening the newspaper's competitiveness and look forward to working with Associated, which will continue to be involved as a minority shareholder."

Associated will continue to provide printing and distribution services to the Evening Standard for an initial period, with the opportunity to extend these arrangements by agreement.

The transaction is expected to take place in February following consultation with employees.

No other newspaper publication owned by DMGT is involved in the transaction.

DMGT chairman Lord Rothermere said: "We are very proud to have owned the Evening Standard.

"It has a long and distinguished history as one of the world's great city newspapers, based on outstanding journalism.

"I believe that Alexander Lebedev shares my commitment to newspapers and will continue to invest in the Evening Standard.

"I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate that DMGT remains fully committed to journalism and newspaper ownership."

Around 400 workers are affected by the Evening Standard deal, but DMGT said it could not give any details about potential job losses at the paper.

Finance director Peter Williams said the Standard was loss-making and had faced declining revenues for a number of years.

He said the sum received for the paper was "truly nominal, totally immaterial, doesn't matter".

"We got nothing up front," he added.

But he said DMGT would receive a preferential share of the paper's profits "when it starts making money".

DMGT chief executive Martin Morgan said the Standard's editor, Veronica Wadley, would continue in her role, but any decision as to the future editor would be "down to the new owners of the paper".

He said the London Lite free newspaper was not part of the deal.

"The London Lite will continue and in our view it is a very distinct niche in the London evening market," he said.

"We will continue to back and invest in the paper."

Mr Lebedev will become chairman of the Evening Standard board.

The 49-year-old, who made his fortune mostly through stakes in banking and insurance companies and Russian airline Aeroflot, 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 Morgan said: "Our view is that the Lebedevs have a good record in newspaper ownership and staff on their papers have certainly reported that they do not interfere in editorial."

He said there were no regulatory approvals required for the deal.