For a token one pound sterling, Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev has just bought the prestigious though debt-stricken, centre-left, British daily The Independent, which has now become the third major Western European newspaper to be purchased by a Russian billionaire in less than two years. In 2009, Lebedev acquired the popular London title Evening Standard. On the other side of the Channel, his enthusiasm for loss-making newspapers has been matched by another Russian oligarch, Sergei Pugachev, who recently acquired a controlling interest in France-Soir. Pugachev has appointed his son, Alexander, to take charge of the French title, while Lebedev junior Evgeny presides over the Evening Standard in the UK. The lack of a clear commercial motive for these transactions might lead you to conclude that the main goal of both of these take-overs was to provide super-rich children with prestigious playthings. The cover price of France-Soir was halved to 50 cents in March, while the Evening Standard became free last October
Why are Russian businessmen who have built their fortunes in banking and industry suddenly so interested in loss-making European newspapers, and in particular, in France-Soir, which notwithstanding its prestigious past hardly sells any copies? There has been much conjecture on this question. In our rational societies, we like rational answers, which is why some commentators have speculated that the Russian newspaper proprietors may be agents of the Kremlin. And there is some evidence to suggest that this may be the case. Pugachev senior likes to present himself as a personal friend of Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, and Alexander Lebedev, whose CV features a stint in the KGB could be described as a former colleague of the Russian premier. But should the purchase of a newspaper be interpreted as a serious attempt to exert influence in a free society where the written word is dying? We will have to wait and see.
When he announced the relaunch of France Soir, young Alexander Pugachev who took on French citizenship to facilitate his father’s take-over deal told le Nouvel Observateur that there was “no plan to talk about Russia.” And the Evening Standard hardly bothers with world news. “I have no reason to believe that Alexander Lebedev is planning to interfere with Russian coverage in The Independent, although it is clear that Russia would certainly be delighted to improve its image in other countries,” says Professor George Brock, head of the journalism department at the City University of London. It is true that over the last few years, Moscow has made a number of efforts to boost its foreign media profile. In 2005, the state-owned news agency Ria Novosti even launched the Russia Today news channel, which broadcasts flattering reports about the Russian government in English, Arabic and Spanish.
Buying a newspaper is like buying an aristocratic title
In Russia, where the oligarchs’ long-standing desire to gain control of media outlets led to take-over battles in the audio-visual sector — that is until they were ousted in the early noughties by the then newly elected President Vladimir Putin — analysts are sceptical about theories that posit a political motive for the newspaper takeovers. On the contrary, the Moscovite consensus is that in the manner of Balzac characters who ape the aristocracy, the oligarchs are simply aiming to establish their presence in the Western elite. The purchases amount to “personal communications campaigns to penetrate Western elites. Appointing their children to run the newspapers is like buying them a title. They cease to be Russians and become Europeans,” explains analyst Stanislav Belkovski, a former insider in the Kremlin and the author of a series of controversial 2003 reports on the “State and Oligarchy.” They have prepared their sons to take on this role by sending them off at a young age to schools and universities in the former British and French empires. On the subject of Lebedev’s takeover of The Independent, George Brock wonders: “Maybe the real motive is personal prestige. Owning a newspaper gets you invitations to all kinds of occasions!” Of late, the junior oligarchs are increasingly on view in the tabloid press.
Two empire-building bankers
On closer inspection, Sergei Pugachev and Alexander Lebedev appear to be two very different oligarchs. Virtually unknown until 2002, banker Pugachev, who hails from Saint Petersburg like Putin and Medvedev, maintains a pious reputation. The 47-year-old, whose empire has interests in a wide range of sectors, including naval shipyards, cultivates a resemblance to Tsar Alexander III, who also sported a long Orthodox beard. However, his enthusiasm for religion should not be confused with saintliness: not according to high-profile journalist Yulia Latynina, who claims “he has criminal past” with at least one conviction in the 1980s. On the other hand, banker and industrialist (notably in the field of aviation), Alexander Lebedev, a noted associate of Mikhail Gorbachev who put an end to the Soviet Union, cuts a more modern figure. The owner of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper that employed journalist Anna Politkovskaya before her assassination, Lebedev offered a reward for the capture of her killers.
But it would be incorrect to portray the new newspaper owners as “the bad oligarch” who never talks to the press — Alexander Pugachev also refused to answer questions from Libération — and is no stranger to the libel courts, and the more accessible “good oligarch” or model former-KGB agent now turned liberal, who is well liked by foreign journalists. “All of the oligarchs took advantage of the sale of state assets and corrupt civil servants,” insists Belkovski, “though Lebedev does appear to be nicer and better brought up.” According to Yulia Latynina, Pugachev, who is unpopular with his peers, is not as close to the Kremlin as he would like to be. So what can be the motive behind the purchase of these newspapers? Are they a means to curry favour? Money laundering instruments or springboards for other contracts? Or, might they be useful in securing influence with elites in the countries where they are based?