It came as something of a shock in mid-January when Russian businessman, politician and former KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Aleksandr Lebedev bought the Evening Standard, one of the jewels in the crown of arch-conservative newspaper publishing house the Daily Mail & General Trust, for just £1:
Lebedev is already a newspaper owner; he’s a major shareholder in the Russian thrice-weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, together with its founder, Mikhail Gorbachev, who set it up in 1993 with his Nobel Prize money.
Daily Mail & General Trust continue to hold the remaining 24.9% of shares in the Standard‘s new owning company, however. And Lebedev has given assurances that he has no intention of interfering with editorial freedom. He’s remained at arm’s length from the Novaya Gazeta editorial team, so these assurances are credible.
More’s the pity, some might add. The Standard isn’t exactly renowned for its political neutrality. During the campaign for the 2008 London Mayoral election, it was strongly partisan in favour of Conservative candidate Boris Johnson (to the point where it earned itself the nickname the “Evening Boris”) and went to some lengths to discredit the incumbent, Ken Livingstone, including with the notorious headline “Suicide bomb backer runs Ken’s campaign”.
Sure, the press are in business to report the news, the public have a right to know, and so on. And it’s a truism in newspaper publishing that good news is no news (though the local papers seem to do well enough out of heartwarming stories). But there’s a fine line between dishing the dirt and hurling mud. It’d be good for London and for the standards of journalism generally if the Standard focused firmly on the former.