Alexander Lebedev, owner of the London Evening Standard newspaper, said he may be interested in remaking fellow billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World if the Russian investor is able to sell some assets.
“I wish, but I don’t think my pocket is deep enough at the moment, but if I’m able to sell any of my businesses, be it Aeroflot or banking, then I’m really very much interested,” Lebedev said in an interview July 15 in his Moscow office. “Half-jokingly, I would say I wish I could remake the News of the World under a different brand: World News.”
Murdoch’s News Corp. was forced to close the News of the World and abandon its bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc this month after rival newspapers reported the tabloid hacked the phones of victims of violence, including a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered.
London’s Metropolitan Police is investigating the hacking and allegations that News Corp.’s British newspaper unit, News International, paid officers to get stories. Murdoch, 80, denied any knowledge of phone hacking and payments to police at the News of the World, blaming “people I trusted” during three hours of questioning by British lawmakers yesterday.
A former lawmaker in Russia’s lower house of parliament and a KGB officer who worked at the Soviet Embassy in London during the Cold War, Lebedev now has a fortune valued by Forbes magazine at $2.1 billion. His National Reserve Corp.’s holdings include a stake in Russia’s flagship airline OAO Aeroflot and in banking, construction, property, agriculture and media companies.
Lebedev, 51, said he would use a remade version of the defunct newspaper to raise interest in stories about corruption and wrongdoing by rich and powerful people. Murdoch’s newspapers worked in the public interest, aside from “playing on the least attractive strings of human nature,” he said.
“Let me just make a funny suggestion: so I decide tomorrow to relaunch News of the World, but calling it Worlds News,” he said. “I will be focusing not on interfering with a killed girl, phone hacking, but would need the journalists to really investigate -- and during investigations you have to observe the laws.”
Lebedev said in May he would quit business in Russia, citing pressure from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor to the Soviet KGB.
In November, he asked Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to intervene after law enforcement officials raided his National Reserve Bank. The raid was retribution for allegations of corruption printed in Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow weekly newspaper he owns with Mikhail Gorbachev, he said.
Being a newspaper owner in Russia and Britain is now a personal “mission” rather than a purely commercial endeavor, Lebedev said in the interview.
Novaya Gazeta is seeking permission from Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to start distributing a daily version of the publication in Moscow subway stations, a venture Lebedev said will cost about $10 million. Lebedev, who also owns the Independent daily in the U.K., started a weekly tabloid in London called “i.”
“i” is interesting, based on what the British public is saying, but we have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said. “The Evening Standard is doing much better, the Independent is OK, we are working with it.”
To focus more on his publishing business, Lebedev said he may sell his stake of about 15 percent in Aeroflot and lower his holding in National Reserve Bank to 25-30 percent. The bank -- of which his National Reserve Corp. owns 74 percent, according to the lender’s website -- may hold an initial public offering at the end of 2012, he added.
“I would be the happiest person to actually get rid of everything, sell it, and just go into publishing and investigative journalism,” Lebedev said.