Could a former KGB spy save Britain’s oldest tabloid, the disgraced and now defunct News of the World? Alexander Lebedev, a 51-year-old former Soviet agent who spied on the U.K. in the 1980s and made a banking fortune in the 1990s, yesterday mulled adding the paper to his stable of U.K. press titles. “Let me just make a funny suggestion: so I decide tomorrow to relaunch News of the World, but calling it World News,” Lebedev told Bloomberg. “I will be focusing not on ... phone hacking but would need the journalists to really investigate, and during investigations you have to observe the laws.”
Lebedev, whose fortune has been valued at $2.1 billion and includes a bank, real estate, and stakes in Aeroflot, already owns the London Evening Standard and The Independent. He also owns, jointly with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, one of the few outspokenly anti-Kremlin newspapers still allowed to circulate.
“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 interested,” said Lebedev. “I would be the happiest person to get rid of everything and just go into publishing and investigative journalism.”
Though News International, owner of the News of the World, has been buffeted by allegations of phone hacking and bribery of police, there’s no hint yet that proprietor Rupert Murdoch is planning to sell all or part of the U.K. newspaper empire that launched his career as a media mogul in the 1960s. But that hasn’t stopped Lebedev’s son Evgeny, who runs the U.K. media operations, from weighing in on the scandal. Lebedev junior condemned phone hacking but, perhaps surprisingly, defended Britain’s tabloid culture. "If red-top [tabloid] values are the price we pay for an open society, then I would rather that, with all the attendant controversy and prurience, over the closed minds bred by a less free press," Evgeny Lebedev wrote in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper earlier this month. "As a British-Russian son of an ex-KGB officer, I feel strongly that one of the best measures of a strong healthy society is its view of free speech."
Sergei Sokolov, editor of Novaya Gazeta, confirms his proprietor’s commitment to investigative journalism. “Avoid the clichés about [Lebedev’s] KGB background,” says Sokolov. “He has proved his interest in transparency and searching for truth. We’ve published investigations into corrupt senior bureaucrats, the business schemes of [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin’s friends and into the murders of our reporters.” Lebedev’s also recently ripped into Putin, warning that he could become “Russia’s Robert Mugabe” unless he cracked down on corruption and opened up Russia’s political system to competition.
But for all his high-profile criticism of the Kremlin, Lebedev’s no loose cannon. In April 2008, Lebedev shut down the Moskovsky Korrespondent newspaper just hours after reporting that then-24-year-old rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva and Vladimir Putin were planning to get married. According to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, Lebedev at the time told the U.S. ambassador that no one has pressured him to close the title. Former staff members at the paper, however, tell THE DAILY BEAST that though Lebedev at first promised to stand by them, he received a call from Putin’s press secretary, Alexei Gromov, and promised to close the title immediately.
“There is no such thing as a former KGB agent,” says Georgy Bovt, former chief editor of Profil magazine, quoting a famous joke of Putin’s. “Lebedev follows the KGB’s special code of behavior. He is interested in digging for truth in the West more than in Russia."
It’s perhaps a measure of just how far the News of the World–and British tabloids–have fallen that a former KGB spy not only occupies the moral high ground but could also end up being the most respectable proprietor in the market.