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Independent: It is, are the new owners?

Robert Peston | 06:49 UK time, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Something remarkable may well happen on Wednesday or Thursday, which is the announcement that a former KGB officer worth $2bn (according to Forbes) is buying a pillar of Britain's free press, the Independent.

Alexander LebedevActually to say that Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny are buying the Indy doesn't quite convey what's happening.

Ownership of the paper (launched in 1986 under the slogan "It is, are you?") and its £10m-per-year losses would transfer to them, but naturally they would not actually have to hand over any cash to take on this expensive responsibility.

The deal has been expected for weeks; on-off negotiations have been going on for well over a year. And those close to the Lebedevs say they hope to unveil their plans tomorrow or the day after.

That said, it wouldn't be a great surprise if there was another delay. Last week agreement was held up over what Trinity Mirror might demand if a Lebedev-owned Indy decided to remove distribution from the Mirror publisher.

My strong sense is that momentum to complete the deal is now unstoppable - although, to resort to cliché, no deal is done till it's done.

So if the Indy completes its almost 25-year metamorphosis from a bold initiative by journalists to control their own destiny into just another's plutocrat's bijou, what does that portend?

Well, as I said in an earlier note, in mundane commercial terms it could mean that there will be no charge for some or all of the Indy's circulation: the Lebedevs already give away the Evening Standard in London, and are pleased with how that has increased the reach of the paper and has helped to push up advertising revenues.

However, abolishing the cover price would not be cheap for them: the Indy's current annual revenue from circulation is about £30m, which is a lot of money to sacrifice on a hunch that over time advertising income will rise enough to compensate.

That said, the Lebedevs will not buy the Indy and be content that it remains the smallest of the so-called quality papers.

They will want to put oomph behind circulation.

Nor are they taking a conventional view of who should run the Indy. They've approached Greg Dyke, the former director general of a rather bigger organisation, the BBC, to be the new editor: he hasn't said no (although that doesn't mean he'll ultimately say yes).

So the scale of the Lebedevs' ambition is unsettling other newspaper proprietors and managers.

The Russians will be braced for fearless investigative journalism from competitor titles, examining the origins of their fortune, whether their purse really is bottomless, whether Alexander Lebedev's relationship with another famous former intelligence officer, Vladimir Putin, is as fractious as it seems (fractious would be good, according to the conventional view) and whether they are committed to free expression.

Having met them, they talk an impressive talk about their access to cash and their passionate commitment to an independent press.

But I haven't conducted banker-style due diligence on them.

Whether such due diligence is strictly necessary, given that the choice for the Indy is probably their underwriting or a lingering death, is moot.


  • Comment number 1.

    All we need to know is that the new owners are free-market loving anarchists who will prop up the bent Capitalist system to the end...looks like it will be more lies and spin then!

  • Comment number 2.

    Tuesday. Doing so well until "banker-style" crept into penultimate paragraph.

  • Comment number 3.

    I used to read the Standard, and it used to have some decent editorial content, but now the overall number of pages and editorial quality has declined and the amount of advertising has increased to such an extent that I don't bother any more. It's just turning into yet another version of London Lite or the Metro, filled with entertainment and no news.

  • Comment number 4.

    More 'jonnie foreigners' interfering with every aspect of our nation and telling us all what to do.

    The British are not now in control of our own destiny.

    The good news is that when we've finanally been ruined to the state of a third world country - we'll eventually and probably, then - Do something about it?

  • Comment number 5.

    I read the Independent from its 1986 launch, and it lived up to its boast of independence until 1991 when it took a very partisan stance over the 2nd Gulf War (invasion of Kuwait) and never regained its former balanced reporting so I stopped reading it.

  • Comment number 6.

    RP - If you've met them and heard them talk an impressive talk, it seems to me that you've done exactly "banker-style due diligence". In fact, given bankers' track record, you’ve probably done far more than your average banker does before taking a punt with someone else's cash and swiping a hefty margin on fees and commission ...

  • Comment number 7.

    Shock, Horror, a UK newspaper might be owned by foreigners! What about the Daily Mail (owner lives in France), Daily Telegraph (owners live on their own private island), The Sun and The Times (whichever tax-haven Murdock is currently using)?

  • Comment number 8.

    I've never read the Independent. I much prefer the Aberdeen Press and Journal.

  • Comment number 9.

    Is Murdock committed to free expression?

  • Comment number 10.

    " a banker style due diligence" lets hope thats worth more than a banker style audit. Sorry Auditors had to get that pop in.

    has the independent ever lived up to its title, is any publication or broadcaster respected these days for its independent.

    Personally i would prefer not to have to read the same story from 4 or 5 different sources to get anything half balanced.

    The best we can hope for is someone to break up the status quo but with all revenue comming from advertisers, i suspect it to be very popularist and the balance and weight of arguement to be in their advertisers favour

  • Comment number 11.

    Banker-style due diligence? What of the Lloyds HBOS sort? Bankers don't know what proper due diligence is. All they care about is getting their money back - it's the strength of the security or collateral that matters to them. They have to use professional help to value that sort of thing, because then they can blame someone else.

    Due diligence ought to suggest that the paper is losing £10million per year, because that's what's actually been happening? The Evening Standard is now a tried and tested business model for them. With the sums of money at stake, it would seem likely this is how it will go.

  • Comment number 12.

    I find the Independent incomprehensible at the best of times. It might just as well be written in cyrillic letters for all the sense it makes.

    It would be interesting to know where all this cash is coming from. Do the tax authorities know? Does Charlie Whelan know? Lord Ashcroft, even?

    Under the Tories it was cash for questions, now it is cash for influence. This is far less vulgar, isn't it?

    Are we contemplating Lord Lebedev? I mean we had Lord Black from Canada, so why should Canada have something the Russians haven't?

  • Comment number 13.

    "Paper late!" cried a voice in the crowd.
    "Old man dies!" The note he left was signed 'Old Father Thames'
    - it seems he's drowned;
    selling england by the pound.

    Citizens of Hope & Glory,
    Time goes by - it's the 'time of your life'.
    Easy now, sit you down.
    Chewing through your Wimpey dreams,
    they eat without a sound;
    digesting england by the pound.

  • Comment number 14.

    I'm having trouble trying to understand how an ex KGB officer has amassed a $2bn fortune. Not exactly the communist principles as I understand them. In fact, there seems to be a worldwide spread of ex communist security officials who have become business men.

    I have to confess to being very disquieted by the steady, insiduous influence these people are exerting around the world. Is noone investigating how these 'gentlemen' have achieved such dizzy financial heights over such a short time? Are countries so desperate for 'overseas' investment to support their economies that the source of their funds is being overlooked?

    I wonder if he pays UK taxes, or like many other oligarchs is a non-dom? I would also be interested to know how many of these businessmen give financial support to our political parties. It seems almost like a repeat of the spread of influence of the Mafia all those years ago.

    I am very naive in such matters, but I can't help but be suspicious of the source of such funds. Are such personal fortunes 'ill gotten gains'?

    Hmmm. Dark days indeed.

    (Robert - great to see a non-banking business story! It's like a breath of fresh air. Thank you!)

  • Comment number 15.

    Yes, Robert..... bad mistake to cite "banker-type due diligence" given what we now know about bankers!!

    But re your main subject, Lebedev must be playing the preparation game for when newspapers get downloaded every morning (.....onto iPads?).

    Develop a good market position using the old technology and get people used to a particular style and content by giving it away free, so driving the weaker ones out of business. Then start charging the same (but a much smaller than present market) cover price for the hard copy and soft copy, so it makes no difference.

    It's all to the good and will give Murdoch and others a nice headache.

    But no risk to democracy and free speech (....unless he buys the Beeb as well?)

  • Comment number 16.

    It seems to me that either some are giving naked capitalism a very bad image, or do they just plan to do very well by it? Could it be both? The depths are hard to fathom.

  • Comment number 17.

    No due diligence at all? That's exactly what you've done!

    Nevermind. Good luck to them. In exactly the same way as Murdoch barely gets away with bias- I dont think they will either. If it is about politics I suspect its more about politics at home rather than here...having a high profile foreign asset/presence is a great insurance policy against sudden shifts in fortunes at home.

    Ask Mr Abramovich- or Mr Khodorkovsky for that matter.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    No...the answer is simple.
    It's a tax write-off.
    We all know that printed newspapers are declining in favour of the internet. Buying a printed newspaper that is already losing money is financial suicide.
    Unless of course you want to 'lose money'.

  • Comment number 20.

    It's a pity that "banker-style due diligence" never seems to get applied to bankers. Caledonian Comment

  • Comment number 21.


    I think it's tewrible we are subjected to this sovviet style of media reporting.
    Nationalised banks, Commie newspapers - what is the world coming to?

  • Comment number 22.

    WELL DONE Mr Peston - u completely ignore the EU report on Britains attitude to its deficit AND the Polls showing Tories running away with Election - Whelan, Mandy, and Clown WILL b happy with u but for us neutrals it is garbage and I resent some of my licence fee going on this so called Business Editor - who REALLY cares whether an ex or current KGB man owns it - we pay Bliar huge sums to trot around the world so WHO CARES???????????????

  • Comment number 23.

    I stopped buying the Evening Standard when Victor Lewis-Smith gave up doing his TV reviews, they were worth the cover price on their own.

  • Comment number 24.

    London seems to preferred place for dirty money laundering. Money is king here!

  • Comment number 25.

    KGB pay obviously wasnt quite as restrictive as that paid to the workers.

  • Comment number 26.


    Yep.... I found out recently that even my son's iPhone was built by the Chinese Communists. However, it didn't make it leak proof and it's not as strong as nails.. Well not as strong as the one I hammered through it anyway. :-)

  • Comment number 27.

    If you fancy having a dig around Mr Lebedev's current affairs...may I suggest you start with a Russian oil & gas company called Timan Oil & Gas and see what he is trying to do to protect the interests of the UK shareholders in this company.

    The activities behind the scenes there seem to be murkier than the Thames......

  • Comment number 28.

    25. AqualungCumbria 'KGB pay obviously wasnt quite as restrictive as that paid to the workers.'

    What makes you say that? Don't they buy businesses with credit? Some people just think it's bad form. They were conditined to think that way of course. Just as Muslims are, and Christians of old. Now, where did they all get their 'ideas' from?

  • Comment number 29.

    Like many people I very rarely buy a newspaper these days as I get most of my news from the internet. When I do buy a newspaper I tend to buy The Independent as more often than not you can still read both sides of each story within its pages rather than the usual one-sided tripe you get in most of the British press.
    I do go on to The Independents website quite regularly, particularly for articles written by Robert Fisk. So for me, as long as the current bunch of good writers are kept on, and maybe even joined by a few more, then I'll keep on reading their articles on the website and occasionally buying their newspaper.

    I don't really care who owns the paper as long as they're not using it as their personal propaganda machine or as a vehicle to spread fear and hatred throughout our country. As long as they're paying their taxes, obeying the law and allowing their journalists to retain a degree of journalistic independence then I'm happy to support them.

  • Comment number 30.

    22. At 12:29pm on 16 Mar 2010, ronreagan wrote:

    "WELL DONE Mr Peston - u completely ignore the EU report on Britains attitude to its deficit AND the Polls showing Tories running away with Election "

    running away with - or running away from?

  • Comment number 31.

    26. At 1:32pm on 16 Mar 2010, Wee-Scamp wrote:

    "Well not as strong as the one I hammered through it anyway."

    Was that done in:

    a) Anger
    b) Frustration
    c) Paranoia
    d) Very poor DIY skills
    e) Another reason.

  • Comment number 32.

    I wonder if the independet will be looking for a business editor.

    Maybe they will point out the bravado of the damned. How about this for a quote predicting the 'quiet before the storm' will last forever...

    ""The rise in Dubai's CDS levels were probably overdone and the global environment has improved, particularly with regards to Greece," said Eric Swats, head of asset management at Rasmala Investments."

    Can anyone (as a starter for 10) explain what improvement has happened in Greece recently?
    The last time I looked spending cuts were merely 'proposed' and clearly 'rejected' by the number of protests. The EU have not signalled a bailout is imminent and the Greeks issued their last round of debt at a significant spread over what was expected (their worries were so great about the auction failing)

    This is yet another example where a baseless comment can be made and turned into a story giving 'confidence'.
    Sadly this is the sort of nonesense a banana republic goes in for - they profess how great the leader is - even in the face of his abject failure - and it only serves to create a bigger backlash once everyone has had enough of being lied to.

    This same tactic is being used in the wider Economy - and it's not managing to cover the obvious facts that:

    a) The Housing market cannot sustain itself without stimulus
    b) The credit calmities of 2008 have not yet fully subsided
    c) The Debt still exists, it's merely been moved to Government balance sheets
    d) Someone is going to have to pay for all this - and everyone is getting into position to make sure it isn't them.

  • Comment number 33.

    To make a point not already among some of the acute ones above.... the Indy isn't a newspaper it's a brand that will carry a 'tv-style' 'narrowcast' news channel.

    Short term the Inde can compete against (but in a different business space) Associated's Metro both in London and the other conurbations that give large number's of 'hands free' commuters; areas with train/bus and underground systems and via distribution through high footfall areas, malls, supermarkets, coffee shops etc ---

    However it's future will probably be as a niche content producer and aggregator more focussed online with video and audio--than on modified dead tree distribution with non-moving video and no-audio stories.

    The question troubling all newspapers certainly in this country is that whatever happens with media convergence it's unlikely that the familiar ten national sunday and ten daily titles model will simply get peeled off the present newstands and slapped onto the internet space....

    The internet tends to reduce plurality amongst almost any inermediated service...and 'news' isn't liable to be any different....... which (although it's not the point of this article) is why the current rising crescendo against the BBC monolith, contains significant amplification from newspapers.

    They know they'll be in the same space all too soon as the BBC (and CNN, Bloomberg, Disney et al) and a smaller BBC will give much needed breathing space to old media hoping to find a comfortable corner in the new media bungalow.

    The BBC resembles an old Soviet style entity in some ways...centralist, state funded and so forth...and now Vladmir Putin and mates have a couple of brands alongside the family football club they can max out the acheivable return , whether in hard cash or just 'soft' influence, by fast tracking, alongside News Corp's faltering efforts, and the BBC's lavishly funded ones, into the converged media world of the 21st century--- increasingly located in the wireless connected mobile devices.

  • Comment number 34.

    32. writingsonthewall 'Can anyone (as a starter for 10) explain what improvement has happened in Greece recently?'

    You know the answer to that.

    We now live in an overly verbal, feminized, world, where words are so detached from what they once referred to that anything goes. Feyerabend set up Against Method as a foil for Lakatos to knock down, but sadly, the latter died before he could do it. Meanwhile, hordes of ignorant badly educated but cocky nitwits act as if ecooomic anarchism (as expropriation of the state) is a good thing rather than destruction of what others had left them as their legacy.

  • Comment number 35.

    33 e2toe4 'The BBC resembles an old Soviet style entity in some ways...centralist, state funded and so forth'

    No like Soviet China then?

    The reality is that just as was the case with the USSR when it was privatised in the 90s, most of the UK state was in fact stolen from the people who had come to own it through taxes and debt, and was effectively bought up at a massive discount by wide-boys (just like in the USSR) who went on to asset strip/make a mess. The question is, how much of the USSR is really just being 'held in trust' by these Jewish Oligarchs? After all, the Soviet (Stalinist) People's Republic of China appears to be doing very well indeed with its SEZ/NEP. Or have I missed something?

  • Comment number 36.

    Try this one plamski:

    The ammunition's being passed, and the lords been praised,
    But the wars on the televisions will never be explained,
    All the bankers gettin sweaty, beneath their white collars,
    As the pound in our pocket, turns... into a dollar.

  • Comment number 37.

    Just keep Phi, Virgilus, Punk, Hypnos, et al. Beelzebub and most of the Inquisitor mob. Most especially Virgilus. And keep a daily subscriber happy. No Schadenfreude - he/she is too hard.

  • Comment number 38.

    "But I haven't conducted banker-style due diligence on them."

    What does that mean?
    You haven't made things up or made things looked better than they actually are, or you have political cover for anything you might say or do, or you expect a bonus at taxpayer expense for writing the article? Banker-style due diligence usally the books.

  • Comment number 39.

    Most of the newspapers in Britain are foreign owned that is why they are so antibritish

  • Comment number 40.

    #39 HonestMP

    Most of our MP's are foreign owned, that's why they are so anti-British!

  • Comment number 41.

    The influence of intelligence services on the British left

  • Comment number 42.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 43.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 44.

    Under the new ownership the now free Standard has ceased to be available in my area except for one rather distant supermarket. As I do not use the tube, where it can be found lying around, I can no longer read it. In the past I have been able to just buy it if I wanted to.

    There is definitely more to why the Lebedevs wish to own UK media. If business was all they are after, there are more convenient and probably still lucrative investments they could have picked, and some with the attending limelight which this sort of people craves. Is there still a journalist around who would really, really look into this?


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