May 12, 2011 at 12:49

Evgeny Lebedev's speech on press freedom at Oxford University

Evgeny Lebedev's speech on press freedom at Oxford University

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to be invited to Christ Church and thank you for your welcome.

I know such warmth is not guaranteed to all! Having just re-read Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, I think of Paul Pennyfeather and know what can happen to outsiders.

To many I must seem an outsider — not least having been born in Russia, but I also now count myself as something of a late-in-the-day insider, having just received a British passport, which I regard as a huge privilege and take with great responsibility.

I am especially grateful to be here as the first speaker in your Gorbachev Series of Lectures on Press Freedom, as my family have a long and close connection with Mikhail Sergeevich: with whom we co-own the Novaya Gazeta, the largest pro-democracy newspaper in Moscow, and he along with my father have tried to form a new political party in Russia. Mikhail and I have also founded a charity in his late wife's name to raise funds for children with cancer, the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation.

This lecture series in the name of the man who, was instrumental in changing the world, continues the ideals of perestroika and glasnost, which are vital to press freedom, and which in turn are essential to a free society.

Let's be clear: No man has sacrificed more personal power in the 20th century in order to provide greater freedom for so many millions of others.

You also could not have timed it better — as this is his 80th birthday year and he has told me personally how flattered and pleased he is to hear of this lecture series.

Certainly, what I can tell you is that it can be an unpredictable business being a newspaper proprietor in Britain, maybe more so in my case if you happen to be the son of a former KGB agent who has lived with the continuous threats, risk of violence and intimidation because of the media we own, as a family.

I was 15, when for the first time men with guns came for my father and I can remember him being harassed yet standing firm. He was targeted because of his determination to talk openly, and operate openly, at a time when glasnost and perestroika were newly formed words and not yet the well-worn revolutionary mantras for freedom. As I stand here in a university college which has a 600-year history of free expression and free thinking I am probably more aware than most here about how lucky we are. In my early years I lived in a dark, closed society where free travel, free expression, and certainly a free press simply did not exist. It is perhaps why I care so much about what so many in this country take for granted: newspapers with the freedom to express whatever views they wish.

I suppose that my professional journey into the newspaper world started then when we bought the London Evening Standard in 2009. It still sometimes makes me rub my eyes in disbelief remebering how everyday as a child, I used to walk past the building which now houses our newspapers. It was the former Barkers store, in Kensington High Street located just a few hundred yards down the road from our then, Soviet Embassy accommodation.

Let me, share my earliest memory of newspapers. In Moscow my grandparents were academics. We did not have much money but we were all hungry for knowledge and education. I remember my grandfather cutting up four square inches of newspaper, Pravda, as far as I can remember, after he had read it cover to cover and then carefully stacking them in a small container in the bathroom to use as loo paper. This was a habit he acquired during the second world war. He kindly explained to me that the best way to make it soft was to scrunch it up. How ironic that today, we print thousands of acres of paper, our whole lives have been radically altered and to capit all I can now use conventional loo paper. What hasn't changed, is our hunger for knowledge and our wish to disseminate it.

For me the iconic title of the London Evening Standard more than just provides news to its readership; it symbolises London. As a child I was schooled in London when my father was in the UK in the Intelligence Service. I can still hear that famous cry from the newstands, "STANDARD, STANDARD!" and I cannot believe that 20 years on I now own that very same newspaper.

With my ownership, the paper has undergone its own idiosyncratic journey towards freedom; almost literally, in ITS case by becoming free of a price, or as I prefer to describe it: priceless.

We had to take radical action to preserve the Standard. It was a hair's breadth away from closing, losing between 10 and 20 per cent of its readers every year, with annual losses of millions of pounds. First, we had to change the economic model by reducing its distribution area and costs, whilst at the same time increasing its circulation and revenue.

We dramatically reduced the costs of distribution to get the paper to the reader from 30p per copy to just 4.5p. We reduced the number of places where it was available from 8,000 in its hey day to just 300 in central London. We put back the print deadline so that we could capture more up-to-the minute news. We also retained up to three editions a day.

By doing this, we were able to make the advertisers pay 150% more for advertising space. With this increased advertising yield, and by simultaneously reducing costs, the Standard has become a viable business.

Just to give you one statistic symbolic of the change: we used to sell 700 paid-for copies at Oxford Circus underground station. Now, everyday, Monday to Friday, we hand out 32,000 copies, free of charge.

Every second, 60 copies of the Standard are handed out each night with 1.75 million readers every day. We are now seven times bigger than the FT, three times the Guardian and twice the Times.

I am so proud to be the proprietor of The Independent. It is a paper which has always stood out for having the finest foreign reporters and current affairs commentators. It is a byword for doing what it says: being uncorruptably independent, unafraid of difficult truths and being a global baromenter of first-class journalism. I intend for that to continue udner my stewardship.

And with the Independent, we introduced an extension of the franchise by creating a new newspaper: I, the first new newspaper for 25 years. This extended the brand by creating 160,000 new buyers at a marginal cost. Together, in circulation terms, our Independent papers have overtaken the main rival the Guardian and we hope The Independent will continue to prosper economically.

The growth and prosperity of papers is not unimportant. The freedom of the press is linked to the economic success of the press. By surviving and thriving, there is more scope for higher quality news and analysis and more opportunity to keep a free press vibrant, healthy and unthreatened. Boldness and reinvention are always essential and this happened in Britain when Rupert Murdoch went to Wapping in the 1980s. His brilliant econonic revolution there stopped newspapers in Britain from being threatened by closure and led to an expansion of the industry. A vibrant press economy aids press freedom.

Nowhere in the media is free speech as upheld but also as abused, as it is on the new digital media platforms.

Some journalists seem to believe that what they write on the Internet exists entirely outside the law. Others think that what they say on Twitter doesn't really count and that inaccurate or intemperate tweets can be retracted at any time. These are serious errors and we are proud that the Independent on Sunday was recently cleared by the Press Complaints Commission, which ruled that information (on Whitehall waste) posted on Twitter should be considered public.

Nevertheless, increasingly it is via these digital media that important truths are first or exclusively revealed, as recent events have shown. Already this year local journalists and indeed ordinary citizens using Twitter, You Tube and Internet blogs and forums have contributed much to our first awareness of the uprisings across the Arab world, the natural disaster in Japan and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, when official sources could not be relied upon to tell us the full story.

Closer to home, the unlawful killing of our Evening Standard newspaper vendor, Ian Tomlinson, and the outrageous and improper use of a superinjunction by a senior journalist, of all people, to cover up his own behaviour, were brought more fully to light thanks to a You Tube video and Internet coverage.

Clearly the development of digital media has ensured that there can now be no turning back, even if some of the world's government censors would wish it otherwise.

Press freedom is a universal ideal — but its currency is different in every country as it means different things to different people. In Russia, people die for it. The day we bought the Standard, two of our journalists at Novaya Gazeta were buried — murdered for their beliefs. So it is not something we either take lightly or have experienced lightly.

I think many of you will have read stories in the press about my family's business having been recently raided by masked gunmen. Some may see this as a direct result of us having had the nerve to own a paper that voices unpalatable truths. Truths such as allowing Khordikovsky, the Russian businessman jailed in Siberia, to speak out and to proclaim his innocence.

It is not easy to identify the gangsters behind such attacks on press freedom in Russia. What I can say with certainty is that such attacks are wrong. Such gangsterism will never dim the torch of journalism in an age where phone, text and the internet make complete censorship impossible (as we recently witnessed in Egypt).

What I do know is that the more press freedom there is, the less opportunity for such intimidation and threats to lives will occur. So, I have very purposely put my money where my mouth is to protect newspapers and allow them to survive and prosper. But the touchstone reason for me is very simple it is the freedom to express.

On a lighter note I must tell you how sometimes the most innocent effort to try to have a conversation about press freedom can go awry. I know so many people when they think of Russian oligarchs — and often for good reason — think bling, Beluga and super-yachts, before they think press freedom.

I was not so long ago introduced to the Prince of Wales at a reception in London, where I was told he had been informed that I owned the London Evening Standard and the Independent. I wondered if he might express a view on our papers as he has been covered in our pages. Or express a view about the morality or even immorality of press behaviour. Maybe even comment on the coverage of his wife when she was attacked by a rioting mob in London, which, after all, made the Evening Standard's front page. Or indeed wish to discuss the rather acidic view towards the monarchy that the Independent sometimes espouses.

But no. Instead, he asked me quite simply: "Have you been interested in football all your life?'

And that was all. Maybe he thought I was Abramovitch. Or maybe he thought that was simply all that Russians do.

But whatever he thought we both missed the opportunity to discuss what I feel is one of the crucial issues of our time: press freedom. It cuts to the very heart of the values of a free society.

What has never been more under the spotlight are the role and responsibilities of the press. We must take them seriously. We must uphold them, cherish them, and nurture them. Because if we don't, we threaten press freedom and therefore we damage our society.

Being in the newspaper business today is not easy. All newspapers face financial constraints — all titles operate in tough times. The Internet, 24-hour news on television, twitter — these have encroached onto territory previously occupied by the printed word.

Even The Guardian, recently named Newspaper of the Year in this country, and with a reputation for investigative journalism, lost £170 million last year.

This pressure on newspapers to produce stories that do sell and to reduce their coverage to the lowest common denominator is intense. At the same time, we live in an age of accelerated speed — once a story begins unfolding, people expect to know about it instantly.

The competitive forces that came together in the phone hacking scandal — with the illegal intrusion into the private lives of celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family — have already seen a reporter and private investigator jailed. This may be just the beginning, as more evidence is being sifted through by a 45 strong police force at Scotland Yard.

This theft of information by dark, murky methods is not journalism, of which I or my newspapers want any part of. The journalists involved behaved irresponsibly, rashly and recklessly, forsaking their duty of care.

Unfortunately, their dereliction of duty brings all the press into disrepute. It invites a crackdown of enforced Draconian laws and threatens our much-valued press freedom.

Is it mere coincidence that while the phone hacking affair has been moving apace, the judges have taken it upon themselves to issue blanket, stifling super-injunctions — protecting celebrities?

The danger here is that the rich and powerful — not only actors, pop singers and sports stars -can use this protective legislation to prevent bona fide inquiries into their behaviour and possible misuse of their positions. That is a mistake to be avoided.

To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable is one definition of a vigilent press. We need to fight the suppression of this free flow of information, yet, stay firmly within the boundaries of the law.

In my view, it all this boils down to this one word – responsibility. That is what we, in the press, need to be aware of and to practice diligently. If we slip up, the judges and politicians will enforce the restrictions that will not be so different from those in regimes where there are institutional straitjackets, preventing the freedom to report. We cannot allow our hunger for a story about a celebrity to produce a system that would not look out of place in the dark, totalitarian days of my native Russia.

The argument is not a simple one. For instance, was it right that the Daily Telegraph used STOLEN information to expose the corrupt expenses activities of some MPs — remember the moated castles and duck houses? Two MPs are now in jail and others face the same fate. Yet the Telegraph bought a stolen computer disk. But was it right to publish this information? In my opinion. Yes, it was. This revealed information in the public interest about how public money was used and it revealed corruption by our politicians. The press revelations were a safety valve to protect the public from politicians who wanted to act secretly and wrongly. One of the most important roles of a free press is to hold to account those in power.

Finding out information about our elected politicians can be very difficult indeed — despite what they say. But we have to be careful: there is a huge difference between exposing corruption in our political establishment and intruding for mere titillation value into the lives of private individuals. One is valuable, essential, investigative exposure; the other is merely salacious and without value. But then, is it right that Wikileaks releases millions of STOLEN documents -including some which may even had names of the Bin Laden courier among them and so potentially risk sabotaging the raid on his hideaway, which ultimately resulted in his death? I think so, because governments do so much to keep what is done in our name and with our money, secret. The leak not only exposed the weakness of the system, it also highlighted the, hypocrisy and the views of those we have elected into power who nonetheless act on their own behalf.

Owning a newspaper brings certain influence and privileges — including being asked to speak in such a wonderful setting as this.

But the word I return to is responsibility. Unbridled power is not right for any media owner -indeed some potential powers must be discarded so that newspaper owners do not have unfettered fiefdoms or monopolies.

Responsibility means imposing voluntary restrictions. Newspaper owners on the whole should not interfere with the editorial content of their newspapers. . Last week, the Independent was pro AVwhile the Standard in its editorials supported the No's First Past the Post.

However, I repeat — if we do not behave responsibly as an industry we will do both ourselves and ultimately the wider society who look to us for information and enlightenment, a terrible injustice.

Here in Britain we are gifted with press freedom, which exists but is sometimes not respected.

In Russia, we have the opposite of this which means hardly any press freedom. There there are even many instances of selling editorial space, which is simply corrupted journalism.

Here, I believe there is too much trivialisation — when what passes as an urgent story is nothing more than tittle-tattle. And when that meaningless trivia is procured via illegal means, we are on a slippery slope as this becomes the accepted standard or norm. We must be wary of abusing our freedom, which could result in losing that very same freedom.

We know we must be alert to preserving press freedom when the Leader of the Opposition calls for a public inquiry into press behaviour. This has called into question the suspicious actions of the police in leaking private information and their close involvement at the highest levels with media companies. It has also been suggested that officers have received payment for such information. This is murky and very serious and sadly reminds me of the corrupt practices in my homeland. We cannot allow this kind of corruption to pave the way for the suppression of the fundamental right to express views.

That's the end game, the ultimate harm that we may unwittingly provoke. Right now, we do not have armed raids at night by rogue elements of the state trying to scare off the press. May that never happen here. But the press should do its part, to behave responsibly . Always adhere to the highest standards. Achieve the greatest of goals: a free country and a free press.

We are all lucky to have such press freedoms in this country that we do have — and I say that from having seen a very dark side elsewhere- but we must always remain vigilant against any erosion of this.

It is something that must be guarded, cherished and constantly fought for. It is the life-breath of democracy and of a free society. It must never be taken for granted. Thank you very much.

Tags: The Evening Standard, The Independent

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