Lebedev's standards
12 May 2009

rsz_lebedev_115794sIs the Evening Standard headed for the same fate as Alexander Lebedev’s under-resourced Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta? Andrei Soldatov reports

As the new-look Evening Standard hits London’s streets, it will have come as a relief to the paper’s journalists to know that their counterparts in Russia have finally been paid. The decision by Alexander Lebedev to hold back the salaries of the embattled reporters of Novaya Gazeta was only the latest in a series of problems they have had to face.

There may be more crossovers in the strategies, and fates, of the two titles than people realise.

I joined Novaya Gazeta in January 2006, a few months before Lebedev and Mikhail Gorbachev announced their decision to buy the paper. I was put in charge of covering the Russian secret services and I don’t remember any attempts by my proprietor to change or halt my stories in spite of his KGB past.

Yet I remain to be convinced that he came to our oppositional paper because of any liberal views. From the 1990s Lebedev was surrounded by journalists from the paper Komsomolskaya Pravda. Pavel Vedenyapin, Lebedev’s close associate on the media, came from that stable, as does the current editor of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov.

Komsomolskaya Pravda enjoyed the largest circulation of any Soviet daily. It was famous not for its investigations, or for its political positioning, but for launching numerous popular and populist campaigns to mobilise public opinion on populist issues: for instance, a campaign to persuade members of the public, especially in rural areas, to hand in illegal firearms. Campaigns such as these were difficult to organise without the support of the Kremlin.

In the liberal 1990s, Komsomolskaya Pravda turned into sensationalist tabloid, although it maintained close ties with the siloviki (the security services). Sergei Ivanov, who in August 2006 took over the press office of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, was for some years the paper’s New York correspondent.

Novaya Gazeta had gained a reputation for being not just the most outspoken oppositional paper, but for its record of high-profile investigations, led by Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya. When Lebedev took over, the paper was facing its biggest crisis. Shchekochikhin had been killed, reportedly poisoned, in July 2003, while Politkovskaya had been gunned down by assassins in October 2006. The new owner faced a difficult choice — develop the investigations section, or turn to public campaigns as a time-honoured means of increasing the paper’s influence and popularity.

Lebedev chose more of the latter than former. Novaya Gazeta became involved in numerous public campaigns, partly organised by Lebedev: one was the idea of building a memorial to the victims of the Gulag. This was supported by Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev.

In this light the “Sorry London” campaign carried out by the Evening Standard, with its promises to take a more “positive” approach, looks more understandable.

For all his wealth and public profile, Lebedev has not increased Novaya Gazeta’s editorial resources: it still has the lowest salaries amongst Moscow-based papers, and the new computers in the editorial office appear to be the only real investment. His first attempt to launch his own paper turned out to be disaster. In autumn 2007 he started the tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent, modelling it in part on Komsomolskaya Pravda. Within months he was forced to suspend the paper and to fire its editor when it reported that President Putin had left his wife to marry a gymnast. It later was forced to apologise. In November 2008, Novaya Gazeta made a number of journalists in its political and investigations sections redundant, including myself.

As Russia was hit by the global financial crisis, Lebedev, like other magnates, was forced to go cap in hand to the state for a bail out. Last week, facing a cash crunch, he put his global financial reputation ahead of the needs of the paper when he paid the salaries of the troubled German budget airline Blue Wings –– leaving the staff of Novaya Gazeta to wait, and worry, unpaid.

Andrei Soldatov is editor of Agentura.Ru website. He worked for Novaya Gazeta from January 2006-November 2008. Soldatov and Irina Borogan are working on a book, The New Nobility, about the Russian secret services for PublicAffairs Books to be published in 2010

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