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19 Jan, 2009 11:03

Ex-KGB officer’s plans to buy London paper causes a stir

The iconic English newspaper The Evening Standard has been making the headlines rather than just writing them, after #39 on Forbes richest Russians list Aleksandr Lebedev made an offer to buy it.

His former links to the KGB have raised fears over the future of the newspaper.

Aleksandr Lebedev is a banker and financier with a fortune estimated at $US 3.1 billion as of before the economic crisis. Going against the grain of the Russian billionaire stereotype, he has been known to spend his fortune on philanthropic deeds, such as a cancer hospital in St. Petersburg where children can receive free treatment.

The crisis has affected his means considerably, but it seems as though the former KGB officer will be able to save The Evening Standard from suffocating.

Dating back to 1827, The Evening Standard is the sole surviving paid-for evening newspaper. It has suffered in recent years and was hit hard by the emergence of free evening papers.

With the Evening Standard thought to lose about £25 million a year, the newspaper’s current controlling shareholder is under pressure to sell it. Some worry, however, if a historic title falls into the hands of a Russian who once worked for the KGB, it would mark a seismic shift in the newspaper business.

However, most in the industry disagree:

“I think it’s silly. There is no seismic shift at all. When Lebedev was in the KGB it was an organisation not only of thugs, but also of an educated elite, out of which he was one,” believes David Hearst, The Guardian’s lead writer on foreign affairs.

“So the whole idea of a former KGB guy 15-17 year later that he’s some kind of a 5th column for the Soviet revanchism is a lot of nonsense. He’s just a shrewd guy who has done lots of things in his life, was very well educated and likes London – what’s the problem?”

Lebedev worked in the 80s for the KGB's elite foreign intelligence directorate based in London, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he went into business.

His portfolio now includes a 30% share of Aeroflot, Russia's state airline, as well as a stake in Gazprom and other concerns. He also owns liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose reporter Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006.

Lebedev’s motives for wanting to buy The Evening Standard are so far a mystery. His fondness for London is well known and his son is the latest fixture on London social scene, featured on Tatler’s list of most eligible bachelors.

Adrian Monck, former editor of Channel 5 news and once a commentator for The Evening standard, says that actually there will be a lot of welcoming in private for Lebedev if the deal happens.

“I think his money is what The Evening Standard really needs. It needs somebody to plug that gap of millions lost every month – Aleksandr Lebedev seems to be able to do that. Whether it’s a good use of the money – who knows? It’s for Lebedev to spend it as he sees it fit,” said Adrian Monck.

As for concerns that he would use it as a political tool, Monck is quite optimistic.

“If you look at opportunities of using papers as standard as a political platform they are reasonably limited – you know it does have influence, but it’s only one London paper amongst nine national newspapers,” he believes.

After all, London has seen Russians owning their football clubs – so a Russian owning an evening newspaper is by no means a stretch of the imagination. Foreign investment may be a boon, taking into account that many British newspapers have been heavily hit by the economic crisis and currently find it hard to pull through.