When I was a cub reporter at the Evening Standard, I and some other younger members of the newsroom were summoned to lunch with the editor, Max Hastings.
We sat in the executive boardroom, dined on baked salmon and drank Pouilly-Fumme (this was the ’90s). At the end of lunch, Max bellowed: “Right, what big campaigns should we be working on?”
I can’t recall our answers, but Max’s question underscored the fact that campaigns were the Standard’s bread and butter. Although we liked to think of ourselves as on a par with the “nationals” (the Mail, the Mirror, The Telegraph etc) and certainly had bigger budgets than some of them, our campaigns, whispered into the ear of commuters as they travelled home in stinking, non-a/c train and tube carriages, were the proof of our local roots.
We tackled not just education and housing but also lighter subjects; there was a plea to save the “wobbly bridge” over the Thames, and a remarkably successful campaign in which London diners were urged not to be ashamed to ask for iced tap water rather than bottled water (this one could do with being resuscitated).
All in all, therefore, it was bit of a surprise to see the Standard’s latest campaign, quietly launched yesterday; an attempt to sell Londoners on the very reasonable notion of working with the world’s biggest rogue state, Russia, to solve the Syrian crisis.
The op-ed in question was written by Evgeny Lebedev. A small italicized note at the bottom of his piece explained, for those unaware of the significance of his name, that he is the owner of the paper.
Like many former reporters at the Standard I was nervous when my alma mater was bought in 2009 by Evgeny Lebedev (for £1), not least because he happens to be the son of the KGB’s former man in London, Alexander.
Between them, father and son now own the Standard and the Independent group of papers.
As the price suggests, the Standard was disappearing down the sinkhole when Lebedev bought it. At the urging of editor Geordie Greig, Lebedev took a bold move and made the paper free in 2010. Circulation rocketed. They pumped millions into the paper, and it now makes money again—this year the Standard announced that it had remained in the black for the third consecutive year, reporting a profit of £1.4m in 2014. Some of my old pals still work there. Some of them even appear to have drunk the Kool-Aid.
The deal was waved through by British regulators. Alexander Lebedev said at the time he had no intention of interfering in British politics if he became the Standard’s new owner. “My influence would be next to zero,” he declared.
He promised an “absolutely” hands-off approach, and said it would be up to the Standard’s editor-in-chief and journalists to agree the paper’s editorial line.
His son obviously has other ideas.
In the astonishing piece, 900,000 copies of which were presumably circulating around London yesterday, from the heart of the City of London to the suburbs of Surbiton, Lebedev argued that the British government should be working with Russia in Syria, and that Britain has been most unreasonable in not settling down for a cozy fireside chat with Russia about the situation, considering our shared “strategic interests.”
What on earth was wrong with us? After all, we could make nice with China, couldn’t we?
He laid the blame for the “deterioration in relations with Britain” squarely at the feet of Britain.
It was all our fault.
On the shooting down of an airliner by rebels armed by Russia, he was silent.
Bashar al-Assad—who was recently feted in Russia by President Putin but has been dubbed a “butcher” by David Cameron—went unmentioned.
On the annexation of the Crimea and the stoking of civil war in eastern Ukraine…well, Evgeny was quick to assure us, “Contrary to almost all Western media coverage about the matter, the conflict in Ukraine is beginning to fizzle out.”
Oh, right, that’s OK then.
There is probably only one other English-speaking outlet that would have run such an extraordinary, one-sided, pro-Russian argument: Russia Today.
To see it in my old paper was painful.
Maybe it’s time for the readers of the Standard to launch a campaign themselves; a campaign to tell Evgeny Lebedev to shut up, like his father promised.