Alexander Lebedev: I was joking about buying the Times

The new owner of the London Evening Standard, Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, has described reports that he is in talks about buying other British newspapers as ‘grossly exaggerated’.

The oligarch, who yesterday paid the Daily Mail and General Trust a “nominal sum” for a 75 per cent stake in the paper, said talk of him buying the Times was “no more than a joke”.

Lebedev has also been linked to a potential purchase of the Independent and Independent on Sunday, according to a Bloomberg report published last week when news of the Standard negotiations fully emerged.

“I’ve been talking to lots of editors and chiefs at British newspapers this year,” the billionaire said in an interview with the Financial Times today.

“But I wouldn’t call it either negotiations or exploratory talks. I think this has been grossly exaggerated.”

He added: “I even joked about the Times. My sense of humour may sound odd, but this was no more than a joke.”

The Daily Mail and General Trust said that its bankers had repeatedly advised the group to offload the London evening paper, which has been hit by the capital’s free newspaper war since 2006.

In September 2006 – when News International launched thelondonpaper and the Standard brought out rival London Lite – the Evening Standard had a paid-for sale, minus bulks, of 238,952.

Two years later its paid-for sale had dropped to 171,313.

DMGT said Lebedev had first approached the group 18 months ago expressing an interest in the Standard, but this was refused.

As the economic downturn hit, it became clear to the group that it could not “indefinitely provide the investment needed to ensure the Standard’s future”.

Announcing the sale to readers in last night’s edition of the Standard, the group said: “Over recent years, the paper’s jobs, cars and property classified advertising – one of the paper’s main sources of revenue – started migrating to the internet.

“Readership habits changed, as did the demographics of London, and the Standard started incurring very considerable financial losses.”

It added: “If the Standard failed to secure new capital it faced the very real possibility of closure.”

Lebedev said he would subsidise up to a fifth of the running costs for the Standard.

“My commitment is that for quite some period of time I will make sure the losses are not hurting the newspaper,” the Russian oligarch said in an interview with the Financial Times this morning.

“How to make it more attractive? It is quite a difficult task in a competitive market which is moving against newspapers, all of them. I’ve been reflecting on it for some time.”

He concluded: “We do have a plan, but I don’t think I am the one to comment on it.”

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