Russian to set new Standard for London

Editor-in-chief trembles as he tells staff the newspaper where he spent 'best years of career' has been sold. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

Few people had seen Paul Dacre like this. The famously strident editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail and London Evening Standard even appeared to tremble slightly yesterday as he read out loud from a piece of paper in his hand. Surrounded by the staff of the Standard, he sombrely announced the sale of the 181-year-old paper for £1.

The nominal sum was humiliating, particularly for a title that likes to distinguish itself from a raft of giveaway rivals by styling itself "London's Quality Paper". Its new owner, Alexander Lebedev, could have bought two 50p copies of yesterday's Standard but instead invested his £1 in a 75.1 per cent controlling stake.

For Dacre, a former Evening Standard editor, it probably did not help that the buyer was a former KGB spy, an Anglophile who had learnt to love British newspapers while working as an espionage officer in Russia's London embassy. But the reality was that the Standard, with annual losses in the region of £20m, was on the brink of closure. One source close to the deal said yesterday that, had Mr Lebedev not stepped in like a white knight, then Daily Mail & General Trust, one of Britain's most efficient and successful newspaper publishing companies, would have had to close the paper.

So at 9.55am yesterday, Dacre walked into the Standard newsroom on the second floor of Northcliffe House, DMGT's headquarters in Kensington, west London, and delivered his sad speech. "He was holding a piece of paper in his hand and it was shaking," said one Standard reporter. "He was very downbeat and harked back to when he edited the paper, saying they were the best years of his career."

It was, said Dacre, "a sad day" for Associated. He apologised to staff that details of the sale had been leaked ahead of the conclusion of the deal, and he praised the courage of Veronica Wadley, who has edited the evening paper for the past seven years. Wadley, a tough cookie who hates taking days off, was absent yesterday, and though it was true that she had lost her voice, it also seems certain that she will now leave the paper, probably for an executive position within Associated.

The new editor of London's only bespoke paid-for paper is expected to be Geordie Greig, the long-standing editor of Tatler magazine, which details the lives of high society. While Associated may have been downcast yesterday, with Lord Rothermere, the chairman of DMGT, issuing a misty-eyed statement saying the company was "very proud" to have owned the Standard, the Lebedev team were "delighted".

Greig is good friends with both the Russian oligarch and his son Evgeny, 28, who is a well-known figure on the London social scene, owning restaurants and closely linked to the capital's fashion industry. Evgeny was involved in some of the talks on the sale of the Standard. Mr Lebedev Snr, who is already a media magnate in Russia where he has a large stake in the liberal Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, issued a statement saying: "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."

Novaya Gazeta has been one of the few Russian media outlets to be openly critical of Vladimir Putin and the government's record on human rights. Mr Lebedev has offered a reward of $1m for information leading to the arrest of the killer of the Gazeta's special correspondent, Anna Politkovskaya. Yesterday, Mr Lebedev was in Moscow trying to reassure the Gazeta staff after the murder on Monday of the paper's lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was shot in a Moscow street by a gunman using a silencer. One of the Gazeta's trainee journalists, Anastasia Barburova, 25, was shot in the head and died in hospital.

Life is rarely so dangerous for the staff on the Standard. Yesterday they worried that their separation from the highly profitable DMGT might have a detrimental impact on pensions and company cars. But there was palpable relief, one reporter saying it was "not every day you read on the BBC website that your paper has been sold to a KGB spy for £1".

Under Greig, who will bring a new management team, the Standard is expected to become more modern in feel and more positive in tone, attempting to better reflect the vibrancy and excitement of life in one of the world's most important cities. But though the Tatler editor is well-connected in the arts world, a personal friend of Lucian Freud and someone who knows J K Rowling as "Jo", he began as a reporter and will make strong news coverage a high priority.

DMGT's newspaper division, Associated Newspapers, will retain a 24.9 per cent share in the Evening Standard and will supply printing, office space for the journalists and other support services. It is understood Mr Lebedev has given a commitment to shoulder entirely an initial programme of investment in the paper.

Associated has separated its free title London Lite, which will continue to do battle with Rupert Murdoch's thelondonpaper and compete with the Standard for readers. It is not clear whether London Lite will continue to take copy from the Standard or whether it will become an afternoon edition of the morning free Metro, also part of Associated Newspapers, but with a more national perspective and editions in other cities.

New team: The players

Geordie Greig has been a successful editor of Condé Nast's society magazine Tatler for a decade. Effortlessly charming, Greig, 48, has organised charity events in London attended by Mikhail Gorbachev, J K Rowling and "these amazingly philanthropic Lebedevs", as he described them to The Independent in 2007. "[They are] one of the few modern Russian families who do philanthropy and charity." Greig is also a highly experienced newspaper journalist who began his career on the Kentish Mercury and joined the Daily Mail where his editor, Paul Dacre, "instilled in me that you don't take no for an answer". Greig worked for 12 years at The Sunday Times, as arts correspondent and literary editor.

Evgeny Lebedev is a London socialite, who steps out with the actress Joely Richardson. He has been directly involved with the Standard purchase and, at 28, already has extensive involvement in the restaurant, hotel, publishing, film and fashion industries. He sees himself as an "entrepreneur and philanthropist" and is involved with many charities, most connected to famous names. As chairman of The Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, which helps Russian children with cancer, Evgeny has hosted many glittering parties. He also supports the Elton John Aids Foundation, the Terrence Higgins Trust and J K Rowling's Charity for Multiple Sclerosis. The oligarch's son, a history of art graduate, has been described as a "billionaire fashionista".

Ian Burrell