Enter Alexander Lebedev, stage left, pursued by James Bond and a Russian bear (meerkats being as yet unavailable), in a drama scripted by Evelyn Waugh
Currently updating my workbook. This is one of my favourites – and it’s the sort of thing I was allowed to produce regularly for Campaign in its heyday.
23 January 2009.
Some of the media coverage of Alexander Lebedev’s proposed acquisition of a controlling interest in the London Evening Standard has been hilarious – and it’s almost impossible to work out whether this is unwitting pastiche or just plain old subversive comic genius in the grand tradition of Evelyn Waugh, say, or PG Wodehouse.
One way or another, there’s an overcooked feverishness about any mention of Lebedev – and it has to be something to do with the fact that he was once a Soviet spy. (You’re invited to pause here to let this sink in. No, really – an intelligence operative. KGB. Based in London. Spying on us and everything.)
Espionage is a concept that still excites reporters of all persuasions, even though some of them managed last week to let slip that Lebedev was in fact a “junior spy” – still in his twenties when the Berlin Wall came down. Barely out of spy school, in fact. A spy in short trousers. With a spy kit from Harrods.
But still, having mentioned a Bond film here, a Le Carre novel there, with a polonium assassination thrown in for good measure, you find you have slipped effortlessly into a fantasy world. And you might find yourself nodding sagely at the notion that Lebedev wants to appoint an editorial board featuring the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair, who are routinely referred to as Lebedev’s “friends”. Presumably they will help fine-tune the Standard’s campaign against London cabbies.
Lebedev, you have to suspect, is interested in buying the Standard in pursuit of an ultimate dream of making himself a small fortune – and in this respect it clearly helps that he started with a large one. After all, he lost $1 billion last year in the financial market meltdown, leaving him with a measly $2.5 billion.
Lebedev’s financial acumen can be gauged somewhat from his view that Chelsea Football Club (owned by fellow Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, about whom he is frightfully sniffy) is a “money-making machine”. Someone should explain to him that Abramovich has pumped hundreds of millions into the club and all it has bought him is a nagging sense of melancholy and world-weariness.
And so it might be with the Lebedev Standard. But he is nothing if not thoughtful. Spy, media mogul, friend of former world statesmen and (we save the best for last) philanthropist: he has, allegedly, been working tirelessly in Russia to bring cheaper potatoes to the masses. It may come to that on these shores, too.
He will be closely watched, naturally. They’re sneaky, these Russkies – and as the Standard’s proprietor, he will wield no little influence. After all, the last thing that Londoners want is to wake up one morning and find they have been saddled with a mayor called Boris or something.