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Lebedev comes in from the cold to raise the Standard

Media Week secures a rare interview with London Evening Standard proprietor Alexander Lebedev, who reveals how he plans to turn the tide for the loss-making title

London Evening Standard owner Alexander Lebedev

London Evening Standard owner Alexander Lebedev

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Arranging an interview with Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB spy turned owner of the London Evening Standard, is like being thrust into a Cold War thriller.

Months of surreptitious calls to Lebedev's man in London are finally rewarded with a blunt order to meet the billionaire Russian in a smart London hotel in 30 minutes.  

On arrival, Media Week is reminded of Lebedev's tight schedule and given a quick lesson in the protocol for interviewing him by Geordie Greig, the ebullient editor of the Standard.

"It's just bang, bang, bang. Fifteen minutes OK for you?" commands Greig. No time to chew the fat about the early work of Lebedev's countryman and novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky then, with a man renowned for referencing the classics.

Lebedev, nattily dressed in white pumps and a navy blazer, looks more like a successful nightclub owner than a newspaper proprietor, but the 49-year-old somehow gets away with it - perhaps it's the influence of Elena Perminova, his 22-year-old girlfriend.

He has flown into London to lead a board meeting for the London Evening Standard, the flagship London newspaper he took a controlling 74.9% stake in in January this year, in a move that caused a minor earthquake across the newspaper industry.

Lebedev explains: "We are facing some tough decisions at the paper, so the board wanted me to come over."

High on the agenda is countering the competition from London's free newspapers, which have haemorrhaged sales of the Standard, which loses about £10m a year.

Daily Mail & General Trust chairman Lord Rothermere, the former owner of the Standard, didn't fancy the challenge, but the deep pockets and progressive thinking of the paper's new proprietor could turn the tide for the influential title.

Lebedev says: "The world trend with the internet and the free news­papers is that you make money from advertising rather than direct sales. We think we have much better quality because we are spending more money on journalism. But we are losing ground and there is no reason not to face the truth. Technically speaking, getting 50 pence out of your pocket is not convenient."

Free Standard
The Standard, following its relaunch, has dipped its toe into giving out selective free copies, and the distribution method appears to have won favour with Lebedev. So will he sacrifice the newspaper's 50p cover price and give the title away for free? Lebedev's answer is enigmatic: "You make tough decisions. It is not about editorial cost-cutting, but presenting yourself to the public in a different way."  

The Russian businessman's commitment to and financial support of the paper have been questioned by some industry voices, who believe his motives are geared towards lifting his social status rather than providing quality journalism. While the ownership of the Standard has undoubtedly sky-rocketed Lebedev's profile on these shores, these claims appear wide of the mark.

He has pledged to invest £30m in the paper, he financially supports the Russian campaigning newspaper Novaya Gazette, in which he holds a 39% stake, and he believes fervently that - unlike in his home country - the UK press acts as the "fourth  power" holding the executive, legislature and judicial powers to account.

Lebedev cites The Daily Telegraph's exposé of MPs' expenses as a template for the role media should play, adding that he would have snapped up such an offer at the Standard. Furthermore, he talks passionately about enticing his journalists into a share ownership of the newspaper.

Lebedev's English is excellent, although his expression is inscrutable, whether he is rhapsodising about Margaret Thatcher ("one of the most powerful and clever politicians that ever existed in this country"), his relationship with President Putin ("he has 1,000 times more genius than Winston Churchill") or despairing over the Russian media ("it has no power").

His claim that he does not interfere with the editorial stance of the Standard is endorsed by its journalism, and he is resolute that he is not running the paper as a business.

He says: "In the case of Rupert Murdoch and News International, it is a business. But it is not for me. I bought the Standard because I am quite a curious person and money is an instrument to create things in favour of society."

Empire building
But presumably a man whose fortune is estimated at £2bn is not in the business of throwing money away. With The Independent titles reportedly next on his hit list, it seems building a media empire is firmly in his sights.

When pressed on whether he will buy The Independent, Lebedev says: "There are synergies. It would be interesting and we are inside the picture. But the papers have certain issues to resolve and I don't want to multiply my problems."

Lebedev made his roubles in the early 1990s and, although he is understood to have lost money in the economic downturn, he is still a very rich man, with assets including the National Reserve Bank and a 30% stake in Russia's national airline Aeroflot.

While his political ambitions in Russia have been stymied - he failed to become mayor in the Black Sea resort of Sochi - his UK media ambitions are meteoric. On building his UK newspaper empire, Lebedev says: "The market is pretty unpromising and the offer of loans is non-existent. Luckily, I learned my lesson from the banking crisis in Russia in 1998. I haven't been borrowing and I don't have debts, so I can support a venture that is loss-making."

Lebedev on...

Being called an oligarch The word oligarch has been used by the Russian government as propaganda against the real private sector and has tarnished its image.

UK politics The story is that the British public has a good choice in the next election. Gordon Brown has been doing a good job, but one should not envy him. David Cameron is the best leader of a political party since Margaret Thatcher, who was one of the most powerful and clever politicians who ever existed.

Political systems Dostoevsky said the Russian soul is too big, but I prefer too narrow. In the UK, we have interests that control each other and work. If you have a weak institution, which is the Prime Minister, I don't believe in that. But Putin has 1,000 times more genius than Winston Churchill.

Poisoning It is true that I have an elevated level of mercury poisoning. But I am not dying. In a sense we are all dying. This story was picked up by a journalist when I was having a private conversation with Gorbachev.

CV

2009 Acquires 74.9% controlling stake in the Evening Standard
2006
Buys a stake in Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta
2003
Elected to the lower chamber of the Duma
2000
Founder and president, National Investment Council
1995
Bought and became head of the National Reserve Bank
1992
Founded the Russian Investment Company
1982
First Chief Directorate, later Foreign Intelligence Service divisions, KGB
1982
Phd research, Institute of Economics of the World Socialist System

President of the Charitable Reserve Foundation and the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation

Fortune Forbes magazine ranks Lebedev as Russia's 39th richest man, with a net worth of £2.1bn

Lives In Rublyovka, Moscow's most prestigious neighbourhood

Family Two sons: 28-year-old Evgeny, senior executive director of the Standard, and Nikita, born in June

Date of birth 16 December, 1959

Hobbies Reading, writing, fishing and diving

This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk

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