Free and Independent?

Talks between INM and billionaire Lebedev are back on

Independent News & Media (INM) has confirmed that it is in exclusive talks with the Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev over the sale of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday.

INM said that the talks about the future ownership of the beleaguered titles were "exclusive, in principle -- but non-binding", and that there was "no certainty" they would result in the sale of the papers.

The former KGB agent (who wrote a diary column for us in September) had expressed interest before, but talks in summer were put off while the company restructured its huge debts.

It's a glimmer of hope for the two national titles, which have been shedding readers like flies (for want of a better metaphor). November's ABC figures showed that barely more than 93,000 copies of the Independent were sold at full price each day.

But it seems that Lebedev -- who may well be shaping up to be the patron saint of failing newspapers -- might not mind what a pickle things are in at INM. He bought a 75.1 per cent stake in the London Evening Standard in January, saying at the time: "As far as I'm concerned, this has nothing to do with making money. There are lots of other ways. This is a good way to waste money." What a nice man.

And the initial signs are that this takeover was good: the Standard, which was similarly losing readers before Lebedev bought it for a nominal sum -- went free in October and has since tripled its readership.

It could be a sign of things to come for the Indie. The resumption of talks has already triggered speculation that the Independent -- currently a hefty £1 -- could drop its cover price, too, and become a morning answer to the Standard. It might not be as much of a leap as it sounds, either: the Indie is read primarily in London, and the two publications already share premises.

However, the Guardian quotes a "source" dismissing this as mere "speculation". We'll have to wait and see.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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