Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Ex-KGB spy defends Standard deal

Russian ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev on his plans

A former Russian spy who bought the London Evening Standard newspaper has said he is happy to be checked for his suitability to own the title.

Billionaire Alexander Lebedev said that his aim was to support the paper financially, and to fulfil what he called a "civic duty".

A Tory MP has asked ministers to look into the implications of the Standard's change of ownership.

But Mr Lebedev pledged not to interfere with the paper's editorial policy.

He said: I have been monitoring all the press coverage in Britain and I have noticed jokes such as 'I am KGB - give me your paper.'

It's a civic duty, to entertain people, to help the paper through the bad times and maybe one day it breaks even
Alexander Lebedev

"But if somebody thinks I need to be checked for a special procedure, to be a proper person to buy a newspaper then I am there.

He added: "But clearly I will not influence the editorial line of the newspaper."

Conservative MP Richard Ottaway confirmed he had tabled a parliamentary question to the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, asking him to assess the implications of Mr Lebedev's purchase under the 2002 Enterprise Act.

Under the act, the secretary of state has powers to intervene in the sale of newspapers on the grounds of "public interest, accurate presentation, plurality of views and free expression", a Business Department spokeswoman said.

Mr Ottaway told the BBC he was concerned about the sale because of Mr Lebedev's background as a former member of a foreign security service, which he said threw up questions of national security.

He said: "There is a public interest factor in the sale of any newspaper.

"And although the Evening Standard is a regional newspaper, it is a very influential one that is read by opinion formers."

At a news conference in Moscow, Mr Lebedev pledged to spend tens of millions of pounds to ensure the survival of the Standard.

Young spy

He said: "Tens of millions of pounds will be invested over at least two years. I want this newspaper to survive and to be profitable.

"It's a civic duty, to entertain people, to help the paper through the bad times and maybe one day it breaks even."

Earlier this week Mr Lebedev paid a nominal sum - reported to be 1- for a 76% share of the paper.

He has previously revealed that he used the paper to find out information when he was a young spy based in London.

Following the sale of the Standard, it was announced that an editorial committee is to be established to "safeguard the principle of editorial independence".

Mr Lebedev's fortune, which is reported to be worth around $3.1bn (2.1bn), was made mostly through banking, insurance companies and from his stake in the Russian airline Aeroflot.

In 2006, he teamed up with ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to buy shares in the Russian paper Novaya Gazeta and his property portfolio includes a string of boutique hotels across Europe.

Mr Lebedev has also expressed an interest in buying out other struggling newspapers both in the UK and the United States.

His take-over of the Evening Standard is expected to take place in February, following consultation with employees.

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