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October 10, 2011 at 17:47

Here is Evgeny at his best in Spectator’s piece

Here is Evgeny at his best in Spectator’s piece

A Press Lord's Notebook

Evgeny Lebedev / Saturday, 1st October 2011

My day started with a bang — or rather, a right hook and a left-right jab combination. A friend in Moscow rang me excitedly, revealing my father had punched someone live on Russian television. I don’t condone violence, but I couldn’t help but find the video clip amusing. Eventually, I got through to my father. He explained that Sergei Polonsky, a corrupt property developer who has long associated with the yet more reprehensible former mayor of Moscow Sergei Luzhkov, was being rude about ordinary Russians and, also, threatening him. Russian people have a fondness for robust characters — hence Vladimir Putin’s occasional displays of manliness. So, rather than causing a scandal, my father instantly obtained cult hero status. I must admit I was rather proud of him.

•••

At the weekend, in the company of my co-owners Ian McKellen and Sean Matthias, I visited a new venture of mine — a 16th-century public house called The Grapes on Narrow Street, next to the Thames. It was built by Huguenots, and appears in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. We had hoped to see Gandalf’s celebrated colourful smoke rings, but the smoking ban denied us. Instead he pulled his first pint — a privilege Tolkien never allowed him in Middle Earth. This provided much amusement for the regulars.

•••

When I was approached about buying the London Evening Standard nearly three years ago, several friends said I was mad even to consider it. Newspapers are dead, they argued. When we eventually decided that the Standard should be distributed free, the chorus grew louder. But now, with a clutch of awards, a circulation that has trebled and a dramatically improved financial position, our faith in the printed word seems justified. Similar disbelief greeted our decision to launch a new, compact 20p version of the Independent, called i. Launch a newspaper into this market? Yet a few weeks shy of its first birthday, daily sales are still rising. Next week, on 7 October, the Independent celebrates its 25th birthday. Having been through its share of ups and downs, the paper (and its Sunday sister) is as sharp and confident as ever. So are newspapers dying? Up to a point, Lord Copper.

•••

This year, I co-hosted the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation Ball with Graydon Carter, the urbane editor of Vanity Fair. This is a time of economic hardship for our country, and charity galas risk the impression of insensitivity. But despite all the financial gloom, the event managed to raise more than a million pounds for children with cancer and Marie Cure Cancer Care. One of the guests was Richard Desmond, owner of the Express newspapers. Having seen my father’s right hook in action on YouTube, he told me he now knows not to mess with the Lebedevs. I am not sure he is so easily intimidated.

•••

To the opening of my friend Antony Gormley’s exhibition at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The work is powerful and very affecting. There are two rooms. In one, the antique sculptures have been taken off their pedestals and placed on the floor, on Gormley’s instruction. This is very adventurous for the notoriously conservative curators of the Hermitage. The effect is exhilarating: both the antiques and Gormley’s metallic sculptures are more persuasive for being almost tangible. Few people have seen these works at eye level before, so there is a novelty to the experience too. Gormley’s whole impulse is to democratise art. The Hermitage has helped him give meaning to that ideal.

•••

A week after the Polonsky punch-up, my father gave an interview to the Observer. Except he didn’t. The writer of the piece, Luke Harding, wanted to hand-deliver a copy of his new book, Mafia State, and had been clearly told this was not an interview. I strongly object to the country of my birth being referred to as a ‘mafia state’. It has its problems of corruption and criminality, but is much better off than it was 20 years ago. I also have doubts about Harding’s claim that the FSB (successor to the KGB) has repeatedly broken into his apartment. Guardian group reporters have made a habit of writing up private discussions with Lebedev père. He is, I suppose, easy prey. Being loquacious and instinctively amiable, he has no plans to stop talking to journalists.

•••

The Observer article also revealed that I spoke by phone with David Cameron while I was in Kabul and he was on his way to Moscow. Is this so remarkable? Erecting a wall between politicians and proprietors would be to draw precisely the wrong lessons from the hacking scandal. I have no interest in influencing government policy, which was the objective which afflicted the Murdoch empire. The political class ought not to think of proprietors as lepers. The Prime Minister was polite and charming, and has every right to ask my thoughts on Russia, or indeed anything else. He was clearly concerned to renew relations with the Kremlin in a manner that benefits Britain. I support him in this, but does Mr Putin? I fear we now have until 2024 to find out.

•••

Evgeny Lebedev is proprietor of the Independent and the London Evening Standard.

Tags: Luzhkov, The Evening Standard, The Independent

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