Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev vows to save London Evening Standard

Billionaire says his 'social mission' as the new owner the ailing London title is to help it survive for years to come. By Luke Harding in Moscow

Alexander Lebedev, the new owner of the London Evening Standard, today promised to make the ailing title "more attractive" to readers and said he planned to pump "tens of millions" of pounds into the paper over the next two years.

Speaking in Moscow a day after he bought a controlling stake in the paper, Lebedev said he planned to meet Standard journalists "very soon". He also said he would reveal its new editor, widely tipped to be Tatler editor Geordie Greig, next week.

"I plan to meet the journalists personally very soon," he said at a press conference. "I want them to be confident in this transition period. The last thing I want is for them to lose confidence."

Describing the Standard as a "good paper", he said his "social mission" was to help the ailing title survive. He wanted it to be "entertaining" and retain its "civic duty role", he said.

"My responsibility now is to help the paper survive for years and not just for months. I don't want it be said that some Russian idiot and former spy came along and bought it like Chelsea, only for it to close down."

The Russian billionaire shrugged off complaints from some Tory MPs that as a former KGB officer he was unfit to become the owner of a British newspaper. Lebedev first read the title in the late 1980s, when he worked at the Soviet embassy in Kensington as a lieutenant-colonel in the KGB.

Lebedev described British press coverage surrounding his purchase of the Standard from Lord Rothermere, the chairman of the Daily Mail & General Trust, as "quite flattering".

"There have been plenty of jokes. I've read the line: 'I'm from the KGB, give me your paper!'," he said. "This humour is one of the best things about the British media."  

Given  his "biography" there was no question he would try to meddle in British politics, Lebedev added.

DMGT confirmed on Tuesday it was selling 75.1% of the Standard to Lebedev for a "nominal sum", believed to be £1. Lebedev today described the deal as "cash-in", and said he hoped to turn the paper's fortunes around.  "We have a plan. It's not an editorial plan, but a business plan," he declared.

The deal, which was first revealed by the Guardian, is a watershed moment for the sickly UK newspaper industry: the first time a Russian has owned a major British paper.

It also sees the Rothermere family relinquish control of the venerable title after almost 30 years of ownership. Today Lebedev said he had no immediate plans to buy any other British papers – though he added that this might change after "six to 12 months" if the global economy picks up. "I can help one newspaper but not 10," he said.

Asked whether he now plans to move to London he said: "I [am] already there a lot. Perhaps more."

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Luke Harding in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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