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Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Sunday, 1 March 2009

From Russia With Lucre

On Sunday 01 March Andrew Marr interviewed Alexander Lebedev, Owner, London Evening Standard.

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

New Evening Standard owner says he won't interfere with paper.

ANDREW MARR:

Alexander Lebedev
Alexander Lebedev, Owner, London Evening Standard

Well we're quite used to Americans, Canadians, Australians owning British newspapers, but the latest foreign tycoon to buy a well-known title here is a Russian.

Alexandre Lebedev, however, who's just taken control of the London Evening Standard from the group which owns the Daily Mail, is hardly your obvious oligarch.

Mr Lebedev made his money in banking, but he's since moved into other areas, including airlines, hotels and agriculture.

He's said to be worth a couple of billion dollars, so not quite in the same league as the Russian Super Rich such as Roman Abramovich and he certainly avoids the oligarch lifestyle - the yachts, the football clubs - and prefers to collect paintings and sculpture.

But his great passion, he says, is freedom of speech. He's poured money into Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's last surviving independent newspapers - some of whose journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya, have paid with their lives.

But when did he first come to London? Answer: as a KGB agent in the 1980s.

And so will the Evening Standard be safe in the ex-spy's hands?

When I met Alexandre Lebedev, I started by asking about his plans for the paper.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

That's a question, of course, which should be put to the new Editor in Chief, but I hope that people in this city would find the newspaper more interesting, more attractive, more impartial, more covering the cultural life because I think it's the capital of the cultural life of the world: London.

ANDREW MARR:

You were here as a KGB officer in the old days. What did you act…I have to ask you. What did you do? People think of dead drops and people sneaking around in funny hats and so on. What were you, what were you up to?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

Exactly, that's what I was doing.

ANDREW MARR:

Really?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

Absolutely. Also torturing people and…

ANDREW MARR:

A lot of torturing, yeah?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

…and a few firing squads I've actually participated. No, this is a kind of a cliché…

ANDREW MARR:

Of course.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

…which is more associated with the 30s of the last century. And when I joined, it was like - I think it was 82 - it had started to be a different society completely.

ANDREW MARR:

So if you were a bright, intellectual, curious person in Russia in the early 1980s, the KGB was quite a good place to be?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

I don't think I was bright at all, but it was an interesting career and I don't think it differs from John Le Carre sort of novels in a good sense of the word.

ANDREW MARR:

Did you sort of fall in love with London at that time, or Britain?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

(laughs) I do enjoy London quite a lot. I think it has improved a lot. If you compare it to Moscow as far as the traffic jams is concerned, it is much better. I enjoy the people, I enjoy the sense of humour. I was getting ready for meeting with you reading Jerome K Jerome 'Three Men in a Boat'.

ANDREW MARR:

So London has… One of the most, one of the most influential papers in the country because it influences the rest of the national papers has yourself as an owner. Is there going to be… Are you going to influence the paper? Are you going to try and change its political views? If there's an argument between Britain and Russia, are you going to get involved?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

I thought it, I thought it… Originally I thought it is a tiny local paper, which exercises no influence at all.

ANDREW MARR:

Wrong!

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

Ah, so I made a mistake after all.

ANDREW MARR:

I think so.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

No, I don't think it's about me exercising any influence and I would imagine if I try on any journalist in the city, I will fail. The reason is simple: it is not possible at all. So I limit my role only as far as the economic side of that is concerned.

ANDREW MARR:

If I go out and buy a copy of the Evening Standard, I spend 50p on it. You've bought the whole organisation for £1.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

Mmn. Yeah, I've heard this story, but in reality it's slightly more. It's a little bit less than £30 million which is committed as a cash in deal rather than cash out. I thought it's not a bad idea for me to try to save the newspaper. I think there were pretty good chances it could have been closed. The explanation is very simple. The markets are moving against all of the printed media and there's not a lot of people around who would be sort of in the position to afford themselves to buy something which is loss making.

ANDREW MARR:

That's why people will be suspicious. They'll say here is something that's loss making. Why would you want to buy it unless you wanted to influence it?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

Hmn, I have some experience with Novaya Gazeta back at home where Anna Politkovskaya used to work. We've lost, we consider, five journalists, which in one case is not very clear.

ANDREW MARR:

Through assassination?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

Yuh. In four cases, these are pure contractual killings. In one case, we think it's a case of poison but this is not yet proven by the investigation. And the explanations are quite simple. We are dealing with quite a lot of investigative reporting, mainly dealing with corruption or sort of Chechnya.

ANDREW MARR:

How do you deal with the Putin regime because your paper in Moscow criticises Putin and yet you have to live inside this regime? How do you handle that?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

I don't think we could put the blame on Putin for any of the murders, though in general of course any politician who runs the country is to be held responsible indirectly…

ANDREW MARR:

For what happened.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

…for cases like that. Now my relations with Putin is far from being complicated. I think the only right I'm defending is the freedom of speech and of course I am using to a certain extent my limited resources in actually supporting the freedom of information and freedom of press.

ANDREW MARR:

Any chance that you buy another newspaper here? The Independent's been mentioned.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

(laughs) I like Independent. I like the British press.

ANDREW MARR:

But you've…

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

I wish I could help any other newspaper in this country or anywhere in the world, but I'm afraid…

ANDREW MARR:

But one at a time.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

…there are certain limits to my resources. I think I am in the same boat with everybody else. I would say the crisis is 70% in our heads but 30% in reality. It's not a war, it's not smallpox, it's… We've lived through much harder times and I think we will survive that. Once we come to sort of a quieter bank of the river, having crossed it, it will be time to speculate.

ANDREW MARR:

Is this crisis going to change Russia?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

We have a very primitive economy, which is based on raw materials; our infrastructure is fifty years old on average. It has to be scrapped completely. We're not producing anything and on top of that our political system provides for no competition. We don't have core production, we have no proper parliament, no parties, no proper media, no proper judicial system. That means if the Government commits a blunder or a mistake, nobody is there to correct it. So I hope the lesson taught by the crisis will put us on the right track in changing our political system and also so we're starting, instead of extracting this stuff out of the earth like oil and gas, thinking about using the skills and brains and hands and sort of structurally reforming the economy and modernising it.

ANDREW MARR:

There will be a lot of people watching who say, "My goodness, here's an ex-KGB man. He's taking over London's newspaper". What's the thing that you would like them to know about you that they don't know?

ALEXANDERE LEBEDEV:

As a businessman I failed, failed in every attempt in small business before making some money in financial markets and I wish they could give me an advice how to become successful in being entrepreneur. For example, the restaurant I have here, the restaurant still have to be subsidised. It means again I have failed on it.

ANDREW MARR:

You don't like being called an oligarch, do you? You don't like that word.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

I don't quite understand what people mean by that. You know that is a kind of a person who by perception is evil…

ANDREW MARR:

Yachts, private jets.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

…who made his fortune during the ugly Russian privatisation in the 90s and spending most of his money derived from raw materials on boats, yachts and personal consumption, and I don't think it has anything to do with me.

ANDREW MARR:

And it's, apart from anything else, going to be a huge adventure for you?

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

Ah, well it's probably wrong thing to say it's going to be fun, but…

ANDREW MARR:

Life is short. It better be fun.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

…the challenge, the challenge is definitely there whether we like it or not. Well I wish the journalists good luck. As far as I'm concerned, my responsibility is to insure them financially, which I think I… I will do.

ANDREW MARR:

Mr Lebedev, thank you very much.

ALEXANDRE LEBEDEV:

Thanks a lot.

INTERVIEW ENDS


Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.


NB: This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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