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.
1. Lebedev proposes to pay a nominal sum (reported to be £1) to acquire a 76 per cent stake in the London Evening Standard.
The title is believed to be running at a loss of more than £10 million a year. Its circulation has been hit by the launch of freesheets in London and is now 287,173. This figure is propped up by bulk copies, with just 158,382 sold at full cover price.
Should a deal go through, its current managing director, Andrew Mullins, is likely to become the chief executive; while the ad sales director, Simon Davies, is expected to move up to fill the managing director role. Geordie Greig, a former editor of Tatler, is tipped to replace Veronica Wadley as editor. It will continue to operate from Associated's headquarters in Kensington; and Associated will provide commercial and back-office functions including ad-sales expertise.
2. The latest talks follow protracted negotiations across most of 2008 - and recent restructuring initiatives at Associated Newspapers should now be seen in this context.
In October, Guy Zitter was appointed the managing director of Mail Newspapers, a structure created to merge the management of its two (previously separately run) flagship titles, the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday.
Ad sales functions have also been merged and Zitter recently appointed a deputy, the former Emap executive Marcus Rich.
3. Associated also restructured its London ad sales operation in December, setting up a standalone Evening Standard sales unit (the title had previously been sold alongside London Lite) operation under Davies.
London Lite's sales people were rehoused in a free newspaper division alongside Metro staff.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
THE LONDON NEWSPAPER MARKET
- Lebedev knows a thing or two about newspapers, apparently. He's dabbled a bit in Russia - and one of his duties as a trainee masterspy in London in the 80s was to gather frontline intelligence by reading the Financial Times every morning.
- Thus, though he failed in his mission to bring down the Free World, he found himself well-placed to take the reins of a vast business empire, stretching from banking to airlines and hotels, as Russia embraced free-market economics.
- If he invests sufficiently in the Standard (and buys an appropriate passport), he can now expect to follow Lord Rothermere into the House of Lords - but in the shorter term, he could make life difficult for the existing London evening freesheets.
- Mark Gallagher, an executive director of Manning Gottlieb OMD, comments: "It will be fascinating to see what happens to London Lite. There was a feeling at the time it was launched that it was merely a response to the arrival of Murdoch's thelondonpaper - that it was cobbled together and there just to protect the Standard's revenues. That rationale may disappear - so it wouldn't surprise me if, on the free side of things, Associated decided to concentrate on Metro, where there's more prospect of distribution growth."
- It looks as if clever old Associated has managed to distance itself from a loss-making burden - and can concentrate more on its core properties. The City is pleased.