Alexander Lebedev, Former KGB Spy, To Buy London's Evening Standard

02/21/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

LONDON — When Alexander Lebedev was a KGB spy in London, it was a daily habit to read the capital's Evening Standard newspaper.

Now, he owns it. The Standard's owners announced Wednesday that the Russian tycoon has bought a controlling 75.1 percent stake in the venerable but money-losing paper for a "nominal sum" widely reported to be 1 pound ($1.40).

Lebedev insists he's not in it for the money _ a good thing, media analysts say. With newspapers across Europe and North America in crisis, it's a poor investment.

"He won't make a profit from it," said Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism at City University in London. "If one of the most successful media companies in Britain can't make money off it, with the greatest respect, I don't think he can."

After weeks of rumors, Standard owner Daily Mail & General Trust PLC confirmed Wednesday that a company formed by Lebedev and his 28-year-old son Evgeny would acquire 75.1 percent of London's afternoon newspaper, with the elder Lebedev becoming chairman of the newspaper's board. Daily Mail & General Trust will retain a 24.9 percent stake.

Daily Mail & General Trust chairman Lord Rothermere said the deal would ensure continued investment in "one of the world's great city newspapers." The Standard's Wednesday edition hailed it as securing "a new future" for the paper.

Some were less sure about a former Russian spy taking hold of a British media institution whose roots stretch back to 1827.

The Standard's circulation is relatively modest _ about 280,000 _ but its blue-and-white signboards and brash sidewalk hawkers are a common sight in the capital.

"If we can't find a more suitable owner ... than a Russian expatriate oligarch, this country is in a pretty poor state," Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the staunchly conservative Sunday Telegraph, told the BBC.

Lebedev's spokesman, Artem Artemov, said Lebedev had no immediate comment on the purchase and would hold a press conference in Moscow on Thursday. Artemov told the AP last week that Lebedev was an altruist who was "interested in supporting independent media ... media that have social value but are having some difficulties because of the financial crisis."

The Evening Standard seems to fit that category. It is believed to lose millions of pounds (dollars) a year. It has to compete with two daily free afternoon newspapers, launched in 2006. And it has been hit by a steep decline in revenue as advertisers migrate to the Internet.

It's a similar story in other big cities. The New York Times, struggling with rising debt and declining ad revenue, said Tuesday it was taking $250 million in loans from Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim.

Greenslade said that from a business point of view, Lebedev's purchase was "baffling."

"I can only think it's the beginning of an empire, a toe in the water," he said. Reports suggest Lebedev would like to buy a national British paper, possibly the perennially struggling Independent.

Lebedev has deep pockets _ although it's not clear how deep. He was ranked by Forbes magazine last year as the world's 358th richest man, worth more than $3 billion. But his fortune has been hit hard by the global economic downturn. Lebedev said last year that he has seen about two-thirds of his stock portfolio wiped out by the crisis and joked that he has fallen off the Forbes list.

Lebedev, 49, is not a typical Russian oligarch. He made his money in banking and insurance, rather than commodities, and has built a reputation as a philanthropist and champion of independent media.

As an intelligence agent, he served in the Soviet embassy in London in the 1980s. He has said that one of his main tasks was to read British newspapers and report on their contents. He developed a particular fondness for the Standard, London's only paid-for afternoon title.

Today Lebedev is part owner _ with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev _ of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, one of the few Russian media outlets critical of the Kremlin. One of its reporters, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered in Moscow in 2006. Another reporter, 25-year-old Anastasia Baburova, was gunned down in Moscow on Monday alongside prominent human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov.

Lebedev has said he does not intend to interfere with the Standard's editorial direction. The newspaper currently takes a right-of-center editorial line similar to its national sister paper, The Daily Mail.

In a statement, Lebedev said he and his family "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."

Britain has a long history of foreign newspaper owners, from the Canadian Conrad Black, former proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, to Ireland's Tony O'Reilly, who owns The Independent. They are routinely vilified.

"It used to be they were criticized for being capitalist barons," said Bob Satchwell, head of the trade group the Society of Editors. "Things have just changed a bit.

"Whether they're capitalist barons or ex-communist oligarchs, the only way to succeed is to ensure that there is editorial independence which readers and potential readers can respect."

The takeover is expected to be completed next month following consultation with employees. Around 400 workers are affected by the deal, but Daily Mail & General Trust said it could not give any details about potential job losses.

Shares in Daily Mail & General Trust fell 1.7 percent to close at 256 pence ($3.50) Wednesday on the London Stock Exchange.

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On the Net:

Evening Standard: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk

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