Ex-KGB man set to buy London Evening Standard?

January 15th, 2009 - 5:33 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Jan 15 (IANS) A Russian billionaire and former KGB spy is set to buy a 150-year-old British newspaper, according to reports Thursday. Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev was reported to have made an offer for securing a controlling stake in the London Evening Standard, which is owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT).

Lebedev is said to have renewed an offer to acquire 76 percent of the shares for an undisclosed sum. His son Evgeny, who lives in London, is due to sign the deal with DMGT Friday, the Guardian reported.

Lebedev told the paper he had read the Evening Standard every day as a KGB spy posted at the Soviet embassy in London in the late 1980s.

“I had to read every newspaper. I was there for that,” he recalled. “I had to read the FT, the Guardian, Standard and the Daily Mail.”

The Standard was “a very good newspaper” with some “brilliant journalists”, Lebedev said, adding the Daily Mail was a “highly influential” title that closely reflected British public attitudes.

However, with relations between Russia and Britain hitting a low over the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London three years ago, “The Standard’s sale to an ex-Russian spy is likely to have been discussed at the highest levels of government”, the paper reported.

Following Litvinenko’s murder in a London restaurant, Britain demanded to be handed over his alleged killer but Moscow declined to do so, taking ties to their lowest since the end of the Cold War.

The Evening Standard has struggled to compete against rival papers in recent years, in particular two free eveningers - London Lite, published by DMGT, and thelondonpaper, published by Rupert Murdoch’s News International.

Lebedev, who is close to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, was ranked 39th on the Forbes list of Russia’s top 100 billionaires before the credit crunch.

Although Lebedev is known in Russia as a semi-opposition figure who has frequently been at odds with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he said he will not interfere in British politics if he became the Standard’s new owner.

“My influence would be next to zero,” he said.

DMGT is believed to be considering the offer, although the company has made no official comment. However, DMGT chairman Lord Rothermere is thought to have rebuffed an offer by Lebedev last month.

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