The London Evening Standard’s new billionaire owner has said he would like to invest in other newspapers – but the recession has left him a bit short of cash.
In a TV interview, Alexander Lebedev outlined his plans for the loss-making evening title, including a £30m injection to see it “through the hard times” and a possible tie-up with the Novaya Gazeta, the Russian paper in which he owns a stake.
“This [the Evening Standard] is a very good newspaper which might, could, have been closed without my support,” Lebedev told ITV News.
“If I can do the same on any other good newspaper – but that unfortunately is restricted by my lack of additional cash.
“For me, my personal consumption is very limited. I’m taught to be more Marcus Aurelius than Caracalla, if you know your Roman history.
“If you want to go and find any loans in the British or German banks these days you will find it very difficult. If I want to borrow anything – no way. We’re all in the same boat.”
The former KGB agent – he prefers the term “foreign intelligence” worker – has suggested that the Standard should adopt a more serious news agenda, tackling major political and foreign policy issues such as global warming and the war in Darfur.
He said he would like the paper, which he bought for a nominal sum from the Daily Mail and General Trust, to be “unbiased, objective, sort of funny” – but added: “My influence, I will try to limit that to zero.”
“As far as the Evening Standard is concerned, it’s not at all £1 [the sum he is understood to have paid] – it’s a little bit beyond a £30m commitment to help the newspaper go through the hard times, change itself to something more attractive to a Londoner or a non-Londoner,” Lebedev said.
He added: “I do have a much bigger vision about a possible future media where you could take a brilliant journalist who may become redundant because the markets are moving against us and sort of embrace them around a certain newsroom and focus them on the most important topics and stories for humanity – from corruption to the greenhouse effect, from alternative sources of energy to how the oil prices are being formed.
“If we’re lucky to find somebody like Mark Twain, who used to be a reporter, or Ernest Hemingway or Anton Chekhov then we have something completely new, which may answer to a challenge from autocratic government and bureaucracies trying to limit the freedom of press.”
Lebedev, who worked in London as a KGB spy in the Eighties, said links to his foreign intelligence past had been a good source of publicity for his new acquisition.
“If I were a gynaecologist for example, would you ask me the question: ‘Why did you buy the Evening Standard?’,” he asked.
“It’s an attractive kind of media situation. If [the extra publicity] provides additional advertisement for the Evening Standard, then I don’t mind.”