Evening Standard billionaire buyer 'wants Independent'

Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev is set to buy a controlling stake in the London Evening Standard – and has also signalled an interest in acquiring the Independent titles.

The Daily Mail and General Trust could announce the sale of a three-quarter stake in the paid-for London evening paper to the former KGB agent as soon as today. However, according to the FT a conclusion to the sale will be announced “in the coming days”.

“This is not my way to make money, but I’d like to explain to the public that newspapers are something they should love and cherish,” Lebedev told Bloomberg News yesterday afternoon.

He said he did not plan on having any editorial influence over the title, which has an average daily circulation of about 287,000 according to ABC and has suffered since the launch of the London free newspaper war in 2006.

“Obviously I would be in charge of the financial side,” Lebedev added. “I have an interest in serving the case of defending the freedom and independence of print media.”

Lebedev also told Bloomberg that he was interested in the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, which recently announced a deal with Evening Standard owner DMGT to share premises and some back-office functions.

With the Evening Standard and the Independent soon to be in the same office, such a deal would make more sense.

Like the Standard, The Independent has a long history of being loss-making.

In an interview with The Guardian’s Luke Harding, Lebedev said yesterday: “I will very meticulously state that it is not polite for a Russian to interfere in British politics. My influence will be zero.”

But Harding does report following his chat with the oligarch that it “seems clear that Lebedev would like to liberate the Standard from the towering shadow of Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail – and nudge it towards a more progressive and possibly Guardian-like agenda”.

As editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, Dacre has overall control of the Standard – which has been edited by Veronica Wadley since 2002. Her position would be likely to be in question following a takeover.

Lebedev indicated to The Guardian that he would be interesting in appointing an editorial board – which could include the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair.

Lebedev has a 28-year-old London-based son who would be likely to be a director of the Standard’s new parent company.

The Standard has been loss-making for some years – a position which was compounded by News International launching free afternoon title thelondonpaper in September 2006. According to the FT it loses between £10m and £20m a year.

The Evening Standard brought out its own free daily title London Lite at the same time and since then both sides have been locked in a costly war of attrition on the streets of Londo.n

The Evening Standard’s sales decline in recent years has been particularly dramatic.

This reflects the fact that London is the toughest UK newspaper market – not helped by its rapidly changing population. The sales decline has accelerated sharply since the free newspaper war broke out in 2006.

In December 2008, the Evening Standard had an average daily circulation of 287,173 – of which 123,346 were free giveaway copies.

In December 2000, the Standard had a headline ABC of 412,358, of which just 30,878 were bulk giveaways.

Lebedev has some pedigree as a media owner. He is a part-owner of the Nova Gazeta – one of the last independent media voices in Russia.

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