A former KGB spy turned Russian billionaire businessman buying London’s only paid-for daily newspaper sounds pretty far fetched.
But if you look back at the recent history of UK media owners – an exotic background has been not been a problem before.
An Australian bought The Times, Sun and News of the World; a businessman who made his money out of porn bought the Express titles and a Canadian who later turned out to be an out-and-out crook once bought the Telegraph.
News of a possible injection of cash and attention from Alexander Lebedev could be a lifeline for the Standard – which has seemed to be on borrowed time since the outbreak of the daily free newspaper war in London in 2006. That battle has led to a big acceleration in both financial losses and circulation decline for the Standard.
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.
Lebedev told the Guardian yesterday that there would be “zero” interference in editorial at the Standard under his ownership. But he also said he would like to set up an editorial board comprising global luminaries such as Tony Blair and Mikhail Gorbachev and hinted that he would take the paper to left, free of the control of editor-in-chief Paul Dacre.
New proprietors always say they won’t interfere with editorial – but this rarely turns out to be the case in the national press. Why else is he buying the paper? It certainly isn’t for its huge money-making potentional.
The Standard has been loss-making for many years and seems unlikely to turn that position around in the near future. According to the FT it loses up to £20m a year.
Lebedev has some form as a newspaper proprietor and the fact that he is part owner of one of Russia’s last dissenting media voices – the Novaya Gazeta newspaper – counts in his favour.
If this deal goes ahead it seems likely that this won’t be the last major change in media ownership this year – as big media is buffeted by the accelerating rate of change brought about by online and by plunging advertising.
So perhaps more news organisations will be bought by people who want to own them for reasons of politics, propaganda or even pride – rather than purely as instruments to make money.
The News International titles, Guardian News and Media and Telegraph Media Group all arguably fall into the former category.
But the ownerships of the FT, Independent, Trinity Mirror and Express titles all fall into the latter and so are potentially up for grabs.