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8 February 2023

What does Evgeny Lebedev want?

Buying British newspapers gave the Lebedevs clout in Tory high politics. Over a decade on, it remains unclear what they hope to achieve.

By Harry Lambert

In 2009 Alexander Lebedev, a Russian businessman and former KGB agent, bought a controlling stake in London’s Evening Standard newspaper. Within a year he had also bought the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, two national print titles. Both sets of assets were soon managed by his son, Evgeny, who was 29 when he became a director at both companies. Alexander had enjoyed reading the Standard while posted to London by the KGB as a younger man. Buying the papers, he told the Guardian in 2009, was “a good way to waste money”. Alexander then had money to waste. Forbes listed his worth in 2008 at $3bn, largely thanks to shares in various Russian state businesses. “No one really knows where the money comes from or how much there is of it,” says Simon Kelner, a former editor of the Independent.

What did Alexander’s son, Evgeny Lebedev, want from these papers? “The main thing he wanted was ways for him to be in the paper,” suggests someone who has worked with him over the past decade. They believe that “this is where he was different from his old man”. Alexander worked his way up through the KGB and “knew an honest day’s toil”. Evgeny had comparatively little work experience. His former colleague believes that Lebedev wanted to use the papers to maximise his influence.

Nothing exemplified that ambition better than Lebedev’s transformation of the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. These “venerable awards focused on the West End” – founded in 1955 – were turned “into this very different thing”, where figures such as Prince William would give out prizes, and Lebedev would then be “pictured in the paper with him”.

It was the Standard that helped Lebedev increase his fame early in the 2010s. The Independent titles, meanwhile, slid towards bankruptcy. The main paper, created in 1986 by a trio of former Telegraph journalists, once had a circulation of 400,000. By the time the Lebedevs bought it, it was down to 185,000 – its print readership then fell by 70 per cent in six years.

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In 2016, after years of losses, the Lebedevs closed the Independent’s print editions. The titles, which had been employing 314 editorial staff, would now live on in digital form. Their closure was “a blow to Britain’s vibrant and fiercely competitive media scene”, wrote the New York Times. Amol Rajan, the editor of the main paper, left for the BBC.

The decision to close the print titles was bemoaned by many at the time, but it has made financial sense. The digital Independent is growing and profitable. In 2021 it made £4m on £41m in revenue. And having begun life as a lean operation, it now employs nearly 250 journalists. As an employer, it is approaching the scale of the old print Independent. Last month the Independent’s chairman John Paton appointed Geordie Greig, the former editor of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, as the title’s new editor-in-chief.

“I don’t read the Indy. Now that Geordie’s doing it, I’d better,” says a doyen of the British media world when I call him about the appointment. “My sense is it’s a centre, centre-left paper, is that right? It’s only digital, is that right? And they sold the i? And they’re separate? I see, I see.”

Greig is taking on a steep challenge. The Independent, while profitable, is considered by many to lack the relevance and intellectual heft of its print forebear. “The great thing about the Indy in its former guise was that it had a distinctive voice,” says Kelner, who edited the daily paper from 1998 to 2008 (and again briefly in 2010). “There’s no question, I think, that the Indy is not the player in the media firmament that it used to be.”

The title’s digital success has been largely driven by the strength of its brand on Google. The Independent’s great intangible asset is not so much its name – as Greig has emphasised to staff – but its high SEO (search engine optimisation) ranking. Placing near the top on Google search results is an asset; it is a huge advantage that Greig has over, say, a new well-funded media company. But it also makes the site unusually dependent on search. Few of the Independent’s digital readers visit its homepage directly, although it has a monthly audience of around 21.4 million, bigger than many of its rivals.

Its secondary shareholders include a wealthy Saudi investor – Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel – who bought a 30 per cent share in the title in 2017. Independent staff tell me they are unaware of any editorial influence by him or Lebedev, who now owns 41 per cent of the title. (Justin Byam Shaw, who Greig used to refer to as his business partner when the pair both held shareholdings in the Evening Standard, is the third major shareholder, with 26 per cent.)

As Alexander Lebedev quipped in 2010, buying the papers was never a way for the family to make money. But it has helped Evgeny Lebedev to win friends and influence in London high society. The problem, perhaps, for Evgeny is that the digital Independent cannot offer him anything like the societal exposure that the Standard – his other brand – once did.

The Evening Standard has been publishing for 164 years (its predecessor the Standard dates back even further, to 1827). It is almost as old as the Economist. But the paper is now losing money on the scale of the old Independent print titles.

Revenue is down 60 per cent since 2016. The title was already losing more than £10m a year before the pandemic, after media advertising budgets migrated online (it became a freesheet in October 2009), but it was then struck by the effect of Covid on the number of commuters travelling into the capital. The paper has not officially had an editor since October 2021.

“It’s almost ceased to exist now,” thinks Kelner, who remembers the impact that the lunchtime edition of the Standard used to have in newsrooms. “It was an event – everyone was scouring it to see what they had, to see what their opinions were. It baffles me that Lebedev has not been able to make a financial success out of a paper that had a monopoly of print advertising and [evening] attention in the capital of the world.”

Over the past 11 years, the two Independent companies and Evening Standard Limited have lost more than £150m (the ongoing liabilities of the Independent print title continue to cost Lebedev nearly £3m a year). There has only been one year in which they collectively lost less than £7m: in 2015, when the three titles fell just short of making a profit. The Standard’s rare profits that year almost covered the Independent’s reduced losses.

When the Lebedevs closed the print Independent a year later, the Standard’s financial model began to collapse. The Standard’s sharp decline coincided from 2017 to 2020 with the editorship of George Osborne, the former Tory chancellor, who oversaw losses of £37m in three years before moving on.

But Lebedev stuck with it. By subsidising the Standard, and allowing Osborne to treat the paper as his pulpit (he immediately used it to attack Theresa May, the prime minister who had fired him as chancellor), Lebedev remained in the political game. An acquaintance believes that “he liked being near influential people” and had a particular interest in Boris Johnson “because he recognised he was the most famous politician”.

[See also: From partygate to Trussonomics, 2022 in review]

In 2020 his proximity to power was rewarded. Johnson made Lebedev a life peer, after reportedly pushing back against the initial advice of the House of Lords appointments commission. Lebedev has since used his peerage to appear in the chamber on four occasions. “Being a Lord – you would have thought that was everything he ever wanted,” says the former colleague.

Many of Lebedev’s fellow peers are unimpressed by his involvement with the chamber. Lebedev turns up once a session, as he must to retain his peerage. There is little evidence of him doing much else. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock tells me that the more peers there are who rarely attend, “the more it discredits the House”. As we talk, Foulkes mentions the KGB past of Alexander Lebedev (Evgeny has stated he has no links to the Kremlin or anything to hide, and has condemned the war in Ukraine). I ask him whether a son should be damned by his father. “No,” he clarifies, but he believes it is legitimate to ask what Evgeny’s purpose is in being in the Lords, “as it’s certainly not to contribute”. In December, a spokesperson said that Lebedev intends to “contribute on various matters in which he has interest and relevance” in the Lords throughout 2023.

“He thought he could cut a mark for himself in British society,” opines a media player of Evgeny Lebedev, adding that owning a paper is a time-honoured way of doing that. “He wanted what he got of them, which was social status,” he believes. “Just as Lord Beaverbrook did before him, and Lord Thomson [owner of the Times from 1966 to 1981].”

What, then, does Evgeny Lebedev still want? He is only 42. The prized possession in his loss-making empire is now the editorship of the digital Independent: a position he has handed to Greig. The appointment is, in a sense, both a coup for Greig, who has been without a role since losing power at the Mail in 2021, and for Lebedev, who has recruited one of Fleet Street’s more respected editors to run a title that has struggled for relevance since going digital-only.

Greig was Lebedev’s first editor. He was in post when the Lebedevs bought the Standard in 2009, running the paper for three years, having been appointed editorial director of all of the Lebedevs’ titles in 2010. A friend tells me Greig became “a huge asset” for Lebedev in the early 2010s, “because everyone loves Geordie and no one is better connected. Lebedev just loved, loved being surrounded by famous faces, from Elizabeth Hurley to Mikhail Gorbachev.”

Greig held a small stake in the Standard and continued to sit on its board after joining the Mail. But he now has nothing to do with the paper, those close to him emphasise (he left the board in 2020). He took over as editor-in-chief at the Independent on 16 January.

Some frowned at the appointment. How would an ex-Mail editor, trained in print newspapers, fit a largely millennial, online staff? As Rajan, the final editor of the print Independent, put it in 2017, the digital Independent is “a left-wing multi-platform digital title, pursuing a viral social media strategy with frequently salacious stories, whose main owners are the son of a former KGB economic attaché and the scion of Saudi property owners”.

But the match is, perhaps, less awkward than it appears. Greig was in some ways a stranger fit at the Mail. He was a Remainer, and eventually became a robust critic of Johnson in office, contrary to the paper’s traditional support for Tory prime ministers. It was a stance which “ultimately he paid for”, believes a friend.

“It was said that he became too aggressive in his assaults on Johnson,” says another observer. “There may have been some Etonian grudge. [Greig preceded Johnson at Eton by a few years.] I remember Charles Moore trying to explain to me how Eton was divided into ‘Shia’ and ‘Sunni’, hating each other.”

Greig’s firing may have had a less political basis: the Mail’s owner, Lord Rothermere, wanted to take the Daily Mail and General Trust private and cut costs while doing so. The company was spending heavily on three separate staffs across the Mail, Mail on Sunday and Mail Online. Rothermere wanted to rationalise that process. Greig did not fit that plan. Ted Verity, editor of the Mail of Sunday, absorbed Greig’s editorship of the Mail rather than the other way around, with Paul Dacre – who nurtured and encouraged Verity and clashed with Greig – as editor-in-chief.

The friend, emphasising Greig’s fit at the Independent, stresses that Greig was “very keen to detoxify the Mail brand”. The staff I spoke to at the company are glad to have him, and have been buoyed by his energy. “He made pretty clear when he started,” an editor at the Independent tells me, “that he doesn’t want to change the voice of the Indy, just make it stronger.”

The Independent, she adds, has not been split by the culture-wars fights that have afflicted other major newspapers, from the New York Times to the Guardian. (Conservative writers and editors have left the former after fights over how to cover the politics of race; the latter has in recent years been riven by clashes among its columnists over how to report on sex and gender.) The Independent also lacks the explosive internal tensions Greig faced at the Mail.

“What Geordie can do is give the Indy a sense of direction and character,” Andrew Neil, the broadcaster and former Sunday Times editor, tells me. “What papers need more than ever is a personality and sense of direction, and some bees in their bonnet.” Greig, Neil thinks, will bring that. “His general demeanour and stature are misleading. I wondered when he went to the Mail if he’d be tough enough and be able to impose his personality on the paper. He was.”

Geordie Greig, who worked for Neil at the Sunday Times, will try to make the Independent as relevant as the other media titles he once led. But merely appointing Greig may be enough for Evgeny Lebedev. Since acquiring the Independent and Standard, Lebedev has shown no serious interest in advancing a political cause, while his companies have not been especially profitable and nor have they led the news agenda. I am told by Independent journalists that he lets them work without interference. There is no editorial line to follow. Multiple people who have worked with him tell me that his main focus appears to have been furthering his position in society, and the fun he can have atop of it.

[See also: Is Substack the future of media?]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak