It’s an improbable story on so many levels. Lebedev apparently fell head-over-heels for the charms of the Evening Standard in the late 1980s, when he was sent to London by the KGB. Since then he’s made his fortune in banking, turning himself into a fully-fledged Russian oligarch with a couple of billion in the bank – and 20 years later, he’s reportedly back in town trying to buy the paper from current owners the Daily Mail & General Trust. Unlikely, we know; but given that the Standard loses several million quid a year, and has seen its circulation slump recently, he must have some reason for wanting it…
According to reports, Lebedev is in advanced discussions to buy a 76% stake in the Standard for an unspecified sum, with DMGT retaining the other 24%. If the deal goes through, he’ll become the first Russian oligarch and the first ex-spy (well, as far as we know) to control one of the UK’s big daily newspapers. Given the recent fraught relations between the two countries, the timing might seem odd – but Lebedev isn’t exactly a Putin crony. In fact, his other interests include Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the former home of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya and one of the few anti-Kremlin titles around. Lebedev himself has not been shy to pick fights with the PM, which in our book makes him a very brave man.
However, this inevitably means that he won’t get much opportunity to expand his media empire at home – so he’s turned his attention overseas. Lebedev told the Guardian that he used to read all the UK newspapers during his time in London, and thought that the Standard was ‘a very good newspaper’ with some ‘brilliant journalists’. He also promised to be a hands-off owner, leaving the paper’s editorial team to set direction (although freed from the influence of its sister paper, the Daily Mail, there must be a good chance it will drift slightly to the left).
Admittedly, the Standard doesn’t necessarily look like an ideal investment opportunity, to the untrained eye. As well as battling with an industry-wide slump in advertising spend and the move to internet publishing, its revenues have been hammered by the bitter circulation war between the free evening papers, pushing its full-price sales down 9% last year. But according to Lebedev, that doesn’t matter. ‘As far as I'm concerned this has nothing to do with making money. There are lots of other ways. This is a good way to waste money,’ he told the Guardian. With an attitude like that, he should go far in the UK newspaper industry...
In today's bulletin:
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Russian ex-spy sniffing round Evening Standard
Small firms get £20bn - but what about the big boys?
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