Moscow Meets Fleet Street Can a Russian Oligarch Save the British Press?
Alexander Lebedev sees himself as the savior of Britain's struggling newspaper industry. He already owns the Evening Standard and is in talks to buy The Independent. But some suspect the Russian oligarch has ulterior motives.
Alexander Lebedev is sitting in the television studio of a Moscow news station. He is in demand on this particular morning. He likes being in demand, and he likes being asked questions.
Lebedev has just sold his share of Russia's state-owned airline Aeroflot, with the personal blessing of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a deal worth 300 million ($411 million). The news caused something of an uproar in Moscow and elsewhere.
The Russian magnate is suddenly flush with cash, a fact that has the media abuzz in faraway London. The British papers suspect that Lebedev, 50, and his son Evgeny, 29, have now obtained the necessary cash that will allow them to finally buy the prestigious British daily The Independent.
"What nonsense. That amount of money is enough to buy the entire British press," says Lebedev, laughing, as he quickly pushes open the studio door.
Savior or Nemesis?
Many a journalist in Northcliffe House on London's Derry Street might find such self-confident talk off-putting. The building houses the editorial offices of the liberal Independent, as well as the Evening Standard, which Lebedev acquired in 2009. The question on everyone's mind is whether the Russian is the savior of the British press -- or its nemesis.
The Standard would probably have gone out of business without Lebedev. The Independent, too, is almost bankrupt. Negotiations on the sale have been underway for months. A deadline for exclusive talks was originally set for Monday, but the company has now extended it to Feb. 26. Although the deal may take a while, few doubt that it will materialize eventually.
The Russian billionaire's efforts have sparked hope and consternation in equal measure among British publishers. Lebedev once worked in London for the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. In the Soviet Union's high-security embassy there, he searched the British press for news he could use in his classified reports to Moscow. Today Lebedev buys up the papers he once combed through. But that alone isn't enough to explain why he is so attracted to the London media.
Like Teaching the Russians How to Make Vodka
Lebedev, who holds a degree in economics, became a billionaire with bank deals and an investment in energy giant Gazprom. Since then, he has made his mark as a critic of the Kremlin.
In a partnership with former President Mikhail Gorbachev, Lebedev acquired a large stake in the Moscow opposition paper Novaya Gazeta, where Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist murdered in 2006 who became an icon of press freedom, had worked.
"I want to help preserve a democratic institution in England," Lebedev insists. "Free media are as important as the parliament and political parties." It sounds incongruous: A billionaire from autocratically ruled Russia wanting to rescue the press in the motherland of liberal democracy. It's as if a British distillery had set out to teach the Russians how to make vodka.
All the same, the fears of Standard employees that Lebedev would convert the paper into a PR machine for a modern Russia have not come true. According to an editor at the newspaper, Lebedev does not determine how it reports on the Kremlin or British foreign policy. "We are not told to write certain stories, nor are we told not to."
"Everyone wants to know what Lebedev really has in mind," says Andrew Gowers, former editor-in-chief of the Financial Times and one of the most well-informed journalists in the British capital. Two weeks ago, a conservative member of parliament even proposed that Lebedev be required to testify before a parliamentary committee, and pointed out that there are "serious questions" about what motivates him to buy the Independent. He has already earned the nickname "mystery man" from the British press.
The Kremlin's Trojan Horse?
Some in London believe that Lebedev is the Kremlin's Trojan horse, and that it plans to use him to polish its tarnished image in the West. Others suspect that he intends to use the newspapers to print compromising material about top politicians in Moscow. This, they say, would allow him to protect himself against those in power by threatening to use the material for blackmail.
Another theory holds that Lebedev, who once campaigned unsuccessfully to become mayor of Moscow, craves political influence. According to yet another rumor, he buys newspapers to promote his other businesses: his bank, NRB, his agricultural holding company and his airlines. The rumors are as varied as they are unproven.
Journalists with the liberal, left-leaning Guardian spent an entire year searching for scandals, dubious interests or dirty deals. "We found nothing," says Stephen Brook, an editor at the paper. In fact, he says that the cantankerous and conservative Evening Standard has even become more politically balanced under its Russian owner, while at the same time lightening up its content to include more sex, more style and more fashion.
- Part 1: Can a Russian Oligarch Save the British Press?
- Part 2: 'The British Press Has Inspected Me with X-Ray Vision'