Lebedev to invest 'tens of millions' after snapping up Standard for £1
Ex-KGB agent promises he will not interfere with editorial policy
Friday 23 January 2009
Alexander Lebedev, the Russian billionaire and former KGB agent, outlined his plans for London's Evening Standard at a news conference in Moscow yesterday. He said there would be changes at the paper and promised to funnel "tens of millions of pounds" into the loss-making title over the next two years.
Mr Lebedev, who paid a symbolic £1 to acquire the Evening Standard this week, becomes the first Russian to own a British newspaper, and many eyebrows have been raised at the deal. It comes at a time when British-Russian relations have still not recovered from the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and Russia's relations with Europe as a whole are strained after the Georgia war last summer and the recent gas spat with Ukraine.
However, Mr Lebedev has a pedigree as a part owner, along with Mikhail Gorbachev, of one of Russia's freest newspapers, and said he didn't plan to meddle with the Standard's editorial policy. "I'm not a journalist, my task is simply to ensure the paper is well funded," he said.
The editor of his main Russian paper, Novaya Gazeta, confirmed last week that Mr Lebedev has never interfered with editorial policy, instead writing to the letters page if articles appear that he does not agree with. And unlike most of Russia's super-rich, he repeatedly goes on record criticising the Russian political system and high-level corruption.
Mr Lebedev, who used to read the Evening Standard as part of his KGB brief when he was posted to the Soviet embassy in London in the 1980s, reiterated his admiration for the newspaper. "I think the word 'iconic' is not an exaggeration," he said. "It's already a very good paper, and I think it can be even better."
He said there would be no further cuts at the newspaper but that there would be changes. He declined to name the paper's new editor, saying an announcement was likely next week.
The Russian also said that he had no plans to move permanently to London. It's possible that his 28-year-old son Evgeny, will be involved in the paper.
Mr Lebedev said he had been following the British press coverage of his takeover and in general was pleased, although he doesn't like the term "oligarch". "I don't own a yacht, none of this is my sort of thing," he said. He estimated that his main company is still worth around €2bn (£1.9bn), but has been hit hard by the credit crunch. He said he had sold an aeroplane and some property in Italy to help finance the Standard deal.
He also said he wanted to create a "synergy" between the Evening Standard and Novaya Gazeta, perhaps even setting up joint investigations.
A Novaya Gazeta journalist and a lawyer who worked closely with the paper were gunned down in Moscow this week. Mr Lebedev said it was becoming impossible for the paper's reporters to do their job.
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