Independent and Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev condemned the trivialisation of the news agenda as he made a speech in support of press freedom at Oxford University last night.
The 30-year-old son of Alexander Lebedev, urged UK journalists to behave responsibly if they want to keep their freedoms. And talking about phone-hacking and the News of the World he said: ‘This theft of information by dark, murky methods is not journalism, of which I or my newspapers want any part of. The journalists involved behaved irresponsibly, rashly and recklessly, forsaking their duty of care.”
He said: ‘Unfortunately, their dereliction of duty brings all the press into disrepute. It invites a crackdown of enforced draconian laws and threatens our much-valued press freedom.
‘Is it mere coincidence that while the phone-hacking affair has been moving apace, the judges have taken it upon themselves to issue blanket, stifling super-injunctions – protecting celebrities?
“The danger here is that the rich and powerful – not only actors, pop singers and sports stars – can use this protective legislation to prevent bona fide inquiries into their behaviour and possible misuse of their positions. That is a mistake to be avoided.”
He said that journalists need to ‘fight the suppression of this free flow of information’yet also ‘stay firmly within the boundaries of the law”.
‘In my view, it all this boils down to this one word – responsibility. That is what we, in the press, need to be aware of and to practice diligently. If we slip up, the judges and politicians will enforce the restrictions that will not be so different from those in regimes where there are institutional straitjackets, preventing the freedom to report.
‘We cannot allow our hunger for a story about a celebrity to produce a system that would not look out of place in the dark, totalitarian days of my native Russia.”
Speaking more broadly about UK journalism he said: ‘I believe there is too much trivialisation – when what passes as an urgent story is nothing more than tittle-tattle. And when that meaningless trivia is procured via illegal means, we are on a slippery slope as this becomes the accepted standard or norm. We must be wary of abusing our freedom, which could result in losing that very same freedom.”
Lebedev also shed some light on how his company has turned around the Evening Standard.
When the Lebedevs took over the Standard in January 2009, circulation was down to around 200,000 copies a night, 150,000 of which were paid-for, and it was losing more than £10m a year. The Standard’s free daily circulation now stands at 700,000 and it is said to be on the verge of break-even.
Lebedev said: ‘We dramatically reduced the costs of distribution to get the paper to the reader from 30p per copy to just 4.5p. We reduced the number of places where it was available from 8,000 in its hey day to just 300 in central London. We put back the print deadline so that we could capture more up-to-the minute news. We also retained up to three editions a day.
‘By doing this, we were able to make the advertisers pay 150% more for advertising space. With this increased advertising yield, and by simultaneously reducing costs, the Standard has become a viable business.”