How to Become British for Only £1

Everything is getting cheaper during the economic crisis -- even membership rights to the British elite. Before the crisis, oligarch Roman Abramovich paid over £500 million for this privilege, but it cost fellow oligarch Alexander Lebedev much less. Last week, Lebedev reportedly bought The Evening Standard for only £1 at face value and £25 million to cover expenses. Lebedev openly admits that he will most likely not make a profit from his purchase; he claims that supporting free press as a matter of principle is more important.

Lebedev has a history of supporting opposition investigative newspapers that were unprofitable. He is best known as the main financial supporter of Novaya Gazeta, the leading nationwide opposition publication that is recognized around the world for its superb investigative journalism.

In addition, during the 1990s, his National Reserve Bank was among the main sponsors of Obshchaya Gazeta, a weekly newspaper founded by Yegor Yakovlev, who was best remembered for the role he played in advancing independent media during Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost. The newspaper, which consistently criticized President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and President Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his first presidential term, was shut down in 2002 after Yakovlev got fed up with begging his sponsors for money.

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

In 2007, Lebedev founded Moskovsky Korrespondent to help fight his longstanding battle with Mayor Yury Luzhkov. The newspaper's most memorable "investigation" was an April article claiming that Putin divorced his wife and was planning to marry the beautiful, young gymnast Alina Kabayeva. The Kremlin was up in arms when they saw this rubbish published. As a result, Lebedev fired the editor and suspended the newspaper's operations. He tried to restart the money-losing Moskovsky Korrespondent six months later, but he was forced close its doors in October, presumably because of the crisis. Meanwhile, Lebedev was negotiating the purchase of an insolvent London newspaper, true to his addiction to unprofitable newspapers.

It is safe to say that Lebedev will bring his rebellious spirit to his newly acquired British newspaper. He told reporters last week that he intends to use The Evening Standard "to help Putin fight corruption."

London has become a popular home for Russian oligarchs both in and out of favor with the Kremlin, which opens up new opportunities for investigative journalism. For example, it would never occur to Putin -- or the majority of Russians -- that Boris Berezovsky received political asylum in Britain for his democratic convictions, not in return for a bribe made to a high-ranking official in her majesty's government. To put an end to this debate, Lebedev can easily ask a few journalists at The Evening Standard to write an investigative piece to definitively confirm or refute the allegation that Berezovsky paid for his status as a political refugee.

I expect that Lebedev will do his best to make sure that the spirit of Novaya Gazeta is applied to The Evening Standard. Lebedev could also send journalists from The Evening Standard to Novaya Gazeta and vice versa to share investigative journalism skills and experience.

In the end, it is entirely possible that the British governing elite will be depicted in The Evening Standard in the same critical way that the Russia elite are depicted in Novaya Gazeta. But this raises a logical question: Does it make sense for an honest oligarch like Lebedev to spend even ?1 to buy his way into the British elite?

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.