The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MR EVGENY ALEXANDROVICH LEBEDEV (affirmed).

  • Mr Lebedev, if you just sit down and make yourself comfortable. Could you please give us your full name, first of all?

  • Evgeny Alexandrovich Lebedev.

  • Mr Lebedev, thank you very much indeed for the statement that you prepared and the obvious work that's gone into it, and indeed for the interest that you've shown in the subject matter of the Inquiry.

  • Mr Lebedev, behind tab 1 of the bundle you should have in front of you, you will find your witness statement. The version I have is undated. It was sent to the Inquiry on 10 April 2012. Is this your formal evidence to the Inquiry?

  • Can you confirm, please, that the contents of it are true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • I confirm the truth from my knowledge and belief.

  • Thank you. I'm going to start, please, with your career history. I just want to be clear about that. To start with, you explain that you were born in Russia, but you have spent large parts of your life in the UK?

  • In terms of your commercial interests in the UK, you've set those out in response to question 1 in your witness statement on the very first page, but in terms of your newspaper interests, can we summarise it as follows: you acquired a controlling stake in the Evening Standard in early 2009?

  • You then bought the Independent from Independent News and Media in March 2010. I should say that includes the Independent on Sunday; is that correct?

  • In your statement, you then cover a number of different issues. You're asked a number of different questions. I'm going to start with the questions on aims, objectives, philosophy and practice and the way in which your business interests in the UK are acquired and run.

    At paragraph 2 of your statement, you explain that your aim in running your newspapers is clear: to support and champion world class journalism, which is ethically sound, in the public interest and is an aid to Britain's democracy. You go on to say that the two newspapers that you own have different philosophies and political leanings but the one thing they have in common is that the journalism is accurate, fair and there's no muck-raking or sleaze. I'm just quoting back from your statement.

    Can you describe for us, please, the different philosophies and political leanings of the Evening Standard and the Independent?

  • Well, I think as the last General Election has illustrated, they do happen to have different political leanings, because the Evening Standard came out in support of the Conservative party in 2010 and the Independent came out in support of the Liberal Democrats, or rather, not came out in support of the Liberal Democrats but said very strategically to keep everyone else out, meaning vote Liberal Democrats. So that's the political leanings of those two newspapers.

  • Is there any difference in their philosophy?

  • The Evening Standard happens to be a London newspaper, so its philosophy is -- its philosophy, as far as I'm concerned, is to talk about London, to celebrate London, to report on London stories, but at the same time still continuing to have serious comment and a bit of serious foreign reportage, but mainly it's a London paper. So it's all about London and as far as I see, London's the greatest city on earth.

    The Independent's philosophy is that it's famed for its brilliant journalism, its foreign reporting, its comment, its -- it's a newspaper that people trust because traditionally it's been independent. That's why it's called the Independent. So it's always been independent of everything, and it's never been afraid to say what it truly believes in. So I think these are the two different philosophies.

  • It's clear from what you say in your statement that you have a particular vision for the newspapers. What I want to explore is how you achieve that aim, ie what personal influence you exercise in order to achieve the aims that you've set out.

    At the top of the second page of your statement -- there are no page numbers except in the bottom right-hand corner, where you should see 3080.

  • You explain how you communicate your vision to your editors in certain ways. You say directly through conversations, board meetings and also pronouncements in speeches and articles.

    Then in response to question 4, you tell us about the more regular contact with your editors. If you look at the top of the third page, 3081, you explain that you have no day-to-day involvement in the running of the papers, you don't get involved in the selection or slant of stories, but that you do contact editorial staff and that varies.

    Can I ask you a little more about that. You tell us that your editors are essentially independent and free, for example, to support the political parties that they choose to. That's correct?

  • Yes, as I think was illustrated at the last General Election.

  • You say they can ask your opinion on a particular policy, of course, and that you would tell them what your view was on that particular policy. Can I just test the limits of that, if I can --

  • -- just by reference to a practical example. Imagine for a moment that there was a particular proposed governmental policy which affected, say, the interests of Londoners or which affected your commercial interests in some way -- it doesn't really matter -- and one of your editors wanted to discuss it with you. You've already told us that you would give your view on that freely. That's correct, isn't it? But what I want to understand is whether you would expect the editor or the newspapers to then go on and take that view into account or, going further than that, whether you would expect the editor or the newspaper to endorse that particular view that you hold?

  • Well, we certainly discuss policies, and I certainly expect it to be taken into account, but to answer your question, there have been many instances when we've discussed particular issues, stories, policies, and editors would have stuck with their original plan to write whatever they were planning to write.

  • Do you have any particular example that springs to mind?

  • I can't think of policies, but I can think of stories that -- for example, you may or may not be aware that I do a bit of journalism myself and I've been to Ethiopia. Just recently, two weeks ago, I've been to Somalia and to Kabul to interview President Hamid Karzai. So I suggest these stories to the editors and they may or may not take them, in which case I take them elsewhere, so -- I don't expect them to take them for sure.

    For example, if it's a story that has no relevance to London, if I'm interviewing Hamid Karzai again, it has no relevance to London because I'm not interviewing him around a visit to London, then I don't really expect that story -- that interview to be taken for the Evening Standard.

  • Might you expect that it would be taken up by the Independent?

  • If it's a good enough story, but if it's not, then not.

  • Going back to -- that's taking up --

  • It would be a very strong editor that said he didn't think your story was good enough to get into your paper, wouldn't it?

  • Well, I think I expect him to take it on merit. So as I've been told by the editor that he felt it was -- it was a very good property to have because it was -- because Hamid Karzai hasn't been interviewed since 2009.

  • Oh yes, I can understand why that story would be taken by anybody, but I think maybe the question goes a little bit further. Of course, ultimately you say your editors are independent of you, but ultimately, with the best will in the world, they're very conscious that you're the one that pays their salaries.

  • Well, it has happened that my stories have not been taken into either the Independent or the Evening Standard, so in which case I just put them elsewhere, maybe in, say, Vanity Fair.

  • I understand. So that's your own personal writings. That's actually you taking up a story and going off to interview someone. What if it was something, a policy --

  • I can't actually -- to be honest with you, I can't ever remember discussing a London policy that I felt really strongly about, that I felt that this -- we should say one thing or another. I really can't recall that because -- we may have had discussion but I've never felt strongly about something, to say that I think this is what we should do.

  • What I'm asking you is: if there was something you felt very strongly about, do you think your editors would feel able to say to you --

  • -- "I'm really sorry, but I disagree and the paper is going to express a contrary view."

  • Do you think they'd be able to say that?

  • How would you react to that?

  • I wouldn't be particularly happy, but I give my editors freedom to decide ultimately what it is that should or should not go into the papers.

  • But you can't think of an example where that has happened?

  • Apart from putting my own journalism in, I can't actually think of any particular story that I felt so strongly about that I insisted that it should go in, or a policy.

  • All right. In terms of process, though, how would you expect it to work? Would you expect them to come back to you and say, "Just to warn you, we are going to run this story and you might not like it", or would you expect them to publish without consultation with you?

  • Unfortunately I get a lot of angry people coming to me and saying, "You've run this, and why have you done this", and so on and so forth. So I don't actually know what's happening.

  • You wouldn't expect them to come and tell you what's going to happen before --

  • No, I find out, like everyone else, from the pages of the newspapers, most of the time.

  • So the point is you've made a policy decision that the way you avoid angry people is to say, "I'm very sorry ..."

  • "Editor, speak to the editor." Although, they still come. They don't quite believe it.

  • That's probably why you're being asked about it now.

  • In Russia, it's much worse. There they definitely don't believe because they know -- they think that the owner directly tells the newspaper, because that's what happened traditionally from the 1990s. When there was first the beginning of the free press, basically press barons used it completely for their own purposes to fight competitors, et cetera, et cetera. So the fact that Novaya Gazeta, which is a newspaper in Russia, is run by the editor and he actually decides what should or should not go into it is something that completely baffles Russian politicians, Russian businessmen. They just don't believe it.

  • I suppose the final question in this line of questioning is: do you ever pick up either of your newspapers and read something that you do disagree with?

  • Absolutely. All the time. Especially the Independent.

  • Especially the Independent. I'll note that carefully.

  • Mr Blackhurst will doubtless be very interested.

  • You were asked, in the questions which were sent to you in advance of this, how often you were in contact with the editors of the various newspapers and you tell us in answer to that question, top of page 4 again, that you speak to editors once a week. Sometimes it rises much higher, other times you'll go a fortnight without speaking to them.

    Mr Greig, who was the then editor of the Standard, is reported as saying that you speak every day. Would you agree or --

  • It probably is true, but Mr Greig is a personal friend. We were friends before he became the editor of the Standard, so --

  • Does that mean that you wouldn't necessarily speak to him about newspaper-related matters?

  • Yes, absolutely, absolutely. We probably spoke once or twice a week on newspaper-related matters and then we just spoke about other things.

  • You obviously have a new editor now, Ms Sams. How often do you speak with her?

  • Well, she just literally is about to begin, but I expect I would speak to her once or twice a week, if that. It all depends if I'm in the country or there's something particular to speak about. It's sort of on a need-to-speak basis.

  • I understand. Let me move on to ask you now about personal involvement with politicians, if I can. Can we start with London, please, given that the Evening Standard, as you've described, is a London newspaper. Behind tab 5 in this bundle you should find an article which is an extract from the New Statesman published 1 July 2011.

  • On page 6 of 7 -- the top right-hand corner has page numbers. You should find 6 of 7 towards the end of that tab.

  • Second paragraph down -- well, right at the start of this page there's a heading, "Renaissance man". Then it goes on to describe the fact that you're steeped in Russian culture, and you're asked about David Cameron. For the moment, let's park that in terms of the second paragraph. There's this quote:

    "'I am proud to call him a friend and a Londoner,' gushes London's mayor, Boris Johnson, when asked for his thoughts on Lebedev. 'This great city of ours would be a lot poorer without him and the vibrant creative Russian community who contribute so much.'"

    He goes on to comment in this way:

    "Johnson does not spell out the financial dimension of that contribution."

    Now, can I ask you this, first of all: would you consider Boris Johnson -- he describes you as a friend. Would you consider him a friend?

  • Well, I think there are probably various degrees of friendships, but yes, I would consider him as a friend.

  • What's the extent of your contact with him, Mr Lebedev?

  • I mean, the reason why I said there are different degrees of friendships is not -- I wouldn't speak to him every day, as I did with Jody Greig, who is a close friend, but I suppose I probably see him maybe every three, four months, something like that.

  • Is that a friendship or do you see him because of your position and the fact that he is Mayor of London?

  • Do you see him socially?

  • I think it's a combination. Bit of both. Sometimes we see each other socially, sometimes we -- you know, we may talk about London issues when we see each other socially.

  • Leaving aside the social conversations or meetings that you have with him, when you're meeting with him in a more formal context or for a more formal reason, why do you meet with him? What is the reason behind the decision to have regular meetings with him as Mayor of London?

  • Well, because he's Mayor of London and I own the London paper. I think there's lots of things we discuss. Basically, London issues. I mean, one of the issues that he helped me with was I was setting up a London-based Russian season of culture, which was basically going to be a season celebrating Russian culture across various London institutions, to include the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Bank Centre, et cetera. About 25 institutions were involved and I had the support of the Town Hall and Boris Johnson in particular. So just to give you an example, that's one of the things we discussed.

  • All right. What's the value of the relationship you have with him in your eyes?

  • Well, for this particular issue, it was great to have the support of the Mayor of London and also because then I was going to -- and I still am working on this, so it's not something that's completely parked to the side, and the idea was to have the Moscow Mayor also involved, so there could be great exchange created between the two cities and have sort of a flow of contemporary art going backwards and forwards, from theatre to film to visual artists, culture, et cetera.

    So that was one of the values. But also just having knowledge from the horse's mouth, so to say, about the London issues. As far as the Mayor is concerned, he is very valuable, so it's very valuable for me to talk to him and discuss with him whatever it may be, from transport to crime, and find out where he's going and what he's planning to do.

  • You've described the fact that you've had social interaction with him. You also have interaction with him in order to acquire knowledge about London issues and also cultural issues. You've described the cultural interaction that you have.

  • So to what extent is political support, either for him as a Mayoral candidate or for his party, ever discussed at these meetings?

  • Well, I'll answer this question very simply: I've never been asked by any politician to give political support by any newspaper. So I've never been directly told -- sorry, not told, but asked, "Would you support us on a particular issue or at an election?" It's never happened.

  • Let me unpick that. I understand you may never have been directly been asked -- those are your words -- but to what extent has the mayoral complain or the issue of Mr Johnson standing as Mayor -- to what extent have issues like that been discussed at all in such meetings?

  • It's only been discussed as far as I was interested what it is that the Mayor of London has done for London up to now and what it is that he's planning to do, but I guess that's what any Londoner would be interested in, and I consider myself a Londoner. So I wouldn't -- that's as far as the conversation on the interest -- as far as I'm concerned.

  • Have you ever raised with Mr Johnson the issue of the Standard's support for any particular mayoral candidate? So the flipside of that. You say he's never directly asked you for support, but have you ever spoken to him about the Standard's plans for who it may wish to support in any mayoral election?

  • Well, the Standard -- I mean, as I've said before, I leave that up to the editor. So the editor would decide who the Standard supports.

  • So is the answer to that question no, that you have not discussed that?

  • Yeah, because it's up to the editor.

  • Have you met any of the other mayoral candidates personally, either in the run-up to this election or at all?

  • I have met Brian Paddick.

  • Is that because he's a mayoral candidate or in some other context?

  • Yeah, because he's a mayoral candidate.

  • Again, was the reason behind that meeting trying to understand --

  • -- as you've explained with Mr Johnson, trying to understand what he would want to do for London?

  • Absolutely, what he is proposing to do.

  • Have you met any of the other mayoral candidates personally?

  • Has anyone advising you met with any of the other mayoral candidates as far as you're aware?

  • Have you discussed the Evening Standard's support for any candidate with the editor of the Standard?

  • I have asked the editor of the Standard who she would support --

  • You don't have to tell us anything.

  • That was the extent of that conversation. So of course I'm interested in who the Standard will come out for, so I've certainly discussed it.

  • Let's move on to other politicians if we can, please.

  • Your responses to question 5 in your statement deal with this. Turn back to your statement and then you can refresh your memory. At the bottom of page 4, I think it is, 3081 in the bottom right-hand corner, you were asked a number of questions about your personal involvement with prime ministers and other ministers. If we could just go through that. Let's start with prime ministers.

    You tell us that you met with Gordon Brown when he was prime minister and you've stayed in touch with him since. Is that a personal or professional continuing relationship?

  • It's -- well, the original meeting was actually to inform him -- just a sort of courtesy meeting to inform him of the purchase of the Evening Standard, and then subsequently, yes, I would say it's remained a personal relationship and we see each other every so often, him and his wife.

  • You then say you've met David Cameron four times, once since he became prime minister.

  • Is that still the most current position? You haven't met him since preparing your statement?

  • Just give me one moment. (Pause)

    What I want to understand, just focusing on prime ministers for the moment: as a new arrival into the newspaper industry, what's the value of a meeting with a prime minister? What is it that you're trying to achieve by meeting with a prime minister?

  • Well, the Prime Minister is the head of the British government, so for me, again, as with the Mayor of London -- I think we occupy the same sphere of existence, so it's very interesting, I think -- it's a symbiotic relationship for myself and for a politician to find out -- politicians are finding out from me what's going on in the media world and we, as proprietors -- or I am, in particular, anyway -- I'm not sure about others -- find out from politicians about the workings of the party, about the workings of Westminster and about the policy.

    I'll just point out that actually I've met various politicians of various ranks, from younger politicians to elder statesmen, and I've met -- it's not just the Tory party politicians that I've met. I've met Nigel Farage of the UKIP party and I'm just about to meet George Galloway way, the newest arrival at Westminster. So I just have an interest in politics and I have very diverse interests so I'm interested in finding out what people think of different issues.

    One issue that particularly interests me is Russia, because I'm Russian and because I still have very strong links with Russia. My family is in Russia. So with the Prime Minister, for example, that's an interesting point for me to discuss, on his views on Russia, what's happening in Russia, and, you know -- in particular, I remember we had a conversation before his trip to Russia, which was -- he was finding out from me my views of what's happening there and I was interested to hear his views, because it was something that interests me greatly.

  • I understand what you say. You're interested in a number of different topics and it's always good to find out what the Prime Minister of the day is thinking on those issues and also to communicate to him issues that are of importance to you, of course. But what I want to understand is when you first acquire your title and you're meeting with the Prime Minister, what's going through your head? Do you come into the meeting thinking: "Right, this is going to be very interesting. I'm looking forward to finding out what he has to say about X, Y and Z subject"? Or are you thinking: "Now wait a minute, there's something I want to get across here, I want to get across who I am, how important my interests are, I need to get over a position of strength"? Is there any validity behind that kind of agenda? Is there something that you would try and promote or is it simply just an interest or a curiosity?

  • I think it depends who you are. For me --

  • For me, it's the latter, it's curiosity. For some you might be seeing in the next few days, it's the former. So I think -- I've never -- it's never been -- I think the difficulty with all of this, with the whole -- one of the biggest issues that the Inquiry is looking at, as far as I can see, is the influence, the influence that newspapers and newspaper proprietors are able to exert over politicians and I think -- as far as I can see, I don't see any problem with politicians and proprietors having contact, having conversations, having meetings, because I think it's just unfeasible to erect Chinese walls between proprietors or between editors and politicians because we occupy the same sphere of existence. But I think where problems begin is when proprietors, because of the power of their media organisations, start exerting influence over politicians and trying to affect country's policy. That's where I think the problems begin. I certainly have never attempted or tried to do that.

  • That's a very important answer and we'll come back to that, but I just want to ask you a few additional questions about other meetings with ministers and then I promise we'll come back to that.

  • You've explained, I think, what the value is of the meetings to you. Much the same question as I asked you in respect of Boris Johnson, is the support of the Independent or the Evening Standard for political parties ever discussed when you have a meeting with a Prime Minister, for example? Is that something which is ever raised?

  • Yeah, of course it's discussed, and I get -- you know, I maybe get disappointed politicians, Tory politicians who are disappointed about the Independent's coverage of Tory policy or I get disappointed Labour party politicians with the coverage that the Evening Standard might be giving to a proposal by the Labour party. But, you know, it's certainly not -- you know, as I've illustrated previously, the newspaper -- the newspaper portfolio that I own is so diverse and different, you know. It's the London paper and that's the sort of -- as far as I see it, the national aspect of the newspaper portfolio, and then -- that's the Evening Standard, and then the Independent is a great international brand. So I think together they come into a really interesting company, but they're so diverse because of the parties they support and the policy they support and the sort of leanings that there will be, of course, upset people on both sides.

  • Let me ask you the question this way: has a prime minister actually ever asked you whether you would support them politically?

  • Let me ask you now about --

  • What about policies? Have you been asked to think about supporting a particular policy?

  • No. I think what may have happened is I was told about a policy and explained why it's a good policy for the country, but that was it. There was never ever any discussion of support for the policy.

  • So part of the value is that you get a personal explanation of why --

  • Yes, exactly, absolutely.

  • -- a particular idea is good and, although unstated, should be supported?

  • Yes, although, as I mentioned before, it will still be left up to the editor of whether the policy is supported or not.

  • I was going to ask you now about meetings with the opposition. You explain that you met with David Cameron three times when he was in opposition and you have met with Ed Miliband twice since he became Labour leader. What's the purpose here of meeting with someone who is not in government, who is in opposition? There's an intriguing phrase in your statement. You say that you like discovering new political talent. What does that mean and with what aim?

  • I am just -- I'm a great fan of discovering new talent anywhere. As may be clear from the newspapers, I'm always keen on promoting younger journalists. We just made a 29-year-old deputy editor on the Independent, and as far as young politicians, I'm interested in young and upcoming politicians, people who have just literately entered Parliament. The reason, again, is interest. I may be looking for somebody who could be a good writer or a good contributor for one of the newspapers, or -- it's interesting to hear fresh, young ideas, something that I've always been very keen on. I'm just about to set up a debating campaigning website called Independent Voices, which I will actually -- I will be the editor-in-chief of myself, but there will be a young editor, who is actually sitting over there, who is 28? Yes. And there will be a team of about five or six 20 to 25-year-old people, young individuals, working on this. So I'm just very keen on promoting-out.

  • I understand. Perhaps I can guess your answer from your previous answers, but in meetings with opposition leaders or politicians, to what extent do they ever ask for, either explicitly or implicitly, your newspapers' support, either for policies or for their particular party?

  • They don't? Is that ever discussed?

  • As far as -- I mean, it depends on how you see asking for support. I think, as you've said, there may be an implicit in explaining policy to me, but that's as far as it goes and then in the end it's always left to the editors.

  • Do you report back to your editors? First of all, do your editors attend with you these meetings?

  • It's happened. It's happened before.

  • Not always. So, for example, the meeting with Ed Miliband was attended by Simon Kelner, who was at the time the editor of the Independent, but not always.

  • If they're not there with you, do you report back as a matter of course what has been discussed during the course of that meeting?

  • I think, again, it depends. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. Not as a -- not sort of ongoing.

  • Not as a general rule?

  • Yeah, not in a general rule.

  • So if a particular politician was trying to impress the merits of a particular policy on you, it may not even reach the editor?

  • It may not. I think generally, going further, I would say I think politicians generally overestimate the influence newspapers have on the political process in this country. Really overestimate.

  • All right. Do you want to say more about that?

  • Well, I just think that -- okay. Going back to the question of politicians meeting proprietors, I think we are in danger of building a society where every institution, every element of democracy becomes too feeble. So politicians become too feeble, police becomes too feeble, the country itself becomes too feeble. If the press also becomes feeble, then what we get is what I would call a tyranny of consensus, and everyone is afraid or thinks twice or has to check twice before a step they make, a comment they make, and I think one of the extraordinary things about this country is a very robust and diverse press, and I think that has to be protected. Without, of course -- those who have created -- who have committed crimes, sorry, should be punished and punished according to the law. But I think the robustness of the press in this country should be protected because otherwise, as I mentioned earlier, I've been recently going on trips to countries where there is no freedom of the press. I've just come back from Ethiopia and there are journalists there that have been charged with terrorism, with genocide. Some might be put to death. Countries like that, when you visit them and you see what the lack of the freedom of the press has on the effects on the government and the state, and also, as far as I'm concerned, I come from -- I was born in the Soviet Union, I come from Russia, and I can see the effects of not having a free press is having on Russia.

    In fact, if anyone bothered to have a look on my father's website, he posted a letter on Friday in which he explains how over US$300 billion have been siphoned out of Russia for various companies, various fake bank accounts. A lot of those individuals who siphoned them off are here in London, hiding under the pretence of being politically persecuted, but actually they've just siphoned an extraordinary amount of money here in this country. Where is that money going? It may be going to fund terrorism or anywhere else. So that's the effects of not having a free press.

  • But this isn't a binary issue, is it? Of course one needs a robust, free press prepared to take a stance, prepared to hold power to account, which is a phrase that has been oft quoted at me during the course of the last few months.

  • But -- and this may be something that Ms Patry Hoskins will come onto, I'm sure -- there must be, must there not, some limit on what they can do? You yourself mention the criminal law. You might also include some ethical limits, because you've spoken about the ethics of your own newspapers. Would you agree with all that?

  • Absolutely. I think as we've seen in recent revelations, there's been extraordinary abuse of power by the press and I think that should be -- that shouldn't happen again, and what the outcome of the Inquiry would be should prevent that from ever happening again.

  • Well, we'll doubtless come onto that later, but I'll be very interested to hear your views on that.

  • Touching on other contact with politicians, it's clear from the disclosure by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, that you've met with him also on a number of occasions and you've also met with Mr Osbourne, Mr Gove, other government ministers and so on. Is there anything else that you need to say about your meetings with them that hasn't already been covered by your previous answers?

  • Can I now ask you then about contact that other news organisations have with politicians.

  • It's probably not escaped your notice that the lists of meetings disclosed by David Cameron, Nick Clegg, other ministers, not to mention special advisers, show that News International, News Corporation, proprietors, editors, executives, for example, were meeting with government and opposition far more frequently than you were, or indeed any other newspaper organisation was.

  • If you look behind tab 7 -- which you don't need to turn up -- and you look down the meetings of David Cameron, for example, you can see many meetings with editors, executives and so on. I appreciate that News International in the UK have more titles than you, but how do you feel about the fact that there have been significantly more meetings between Prime Minister, government ministers, than there have been with you, and is it appropriate for there to be a difference between the numbers of meetings that, say, you have -- I probably asked two questions in one there. Do you feel able to answer that question? Is it appropriate?

  • Appropriate about the number of meetings?

  • Is it appropriate that one newspaper organisation has more meetings with prime ministers and other ministers than any other?

  • Well, I think I would say that it depends on the relationship. Again, if they've had personal relationships, then no, but the question is: was there an attempt to influence policy or was policy influenced through those meetings? I think that's the crucial question. So, you know, I don't mind how many times who met who. It's just whether that key is being -- whether there's been policy influence.

  • I understand. So it's not about the number of meetings?

  • It's about what's discussed during those meetings?

  • You used the phrase a few minutes ago "the sphere of existence". "We occupy the same sphere of existence." Would you say that's the same for all newspapers and, in any event, elaborate on what you mean, please, by the phrase "sphere of existence".

  • Well, I think we -- politicians -- even though I did say that they overestimate the influence of newspapers, and I think they do, and it does make them more feeble because -- and I think that is the downside of the press, but it's a small price to pay for having the freedom of expression and for holding those in power to account, but I think they pay too much attention to what the press say and hence not always say what it is they truly think and what they believe in. But we do occupy the same orbit, so to speak. We sort of circulate as satellites around the same planet -- politicians, the editors, the media owners, et cetera, so -- I'm not sure I'm making myself clear enough, am I?

  • Well, I understand that you might be interested in the same things.

  • And in the same way that you're interested in providing news for your readers, so they're interested in influencing what your readers, ie the public, think about them. But that actually runs straight into your issue about policy, doesn't it?

  • And the extent to which there's an exchange of views about policy and whether that influence becomes too great.

  • I think that's more -- as far as politicians, that's more -- could be said about Westminster journalists. So that's the relationship there and there's a real symbiotic relationship. I think as far as I'm concerned, anyway, as far as proprietors and politicians are concerned, we just are interested to find out about each other's -- so I'm interested in finding out government policy. I'm interested in finding out what's happening with the government, and in particular, the position on Russia, and I think politicians are interested in finding out what's going on in the media -- in the media world.

  • I asked you whether or not you thought there was a problem with the number of meetings. You said no. Does that mean that you wouldn't support a change to the way the system works so that access to government is more limited?

  • But what happens then if, say, there are personal relationships? Would you then say, "You cannot be friends with somebody, you can't see somebody you have a personal relationship with, because of that reason"? So I think that's what I was trying to say. There's a creation of this sort of -- of a system where everything is so regulated that you have to think twice about everything you do in life, in your personal relationships and your everyday way of life. I think that creates a problem. That creates that tyranny of consensus I was talking about.

  • You say in response to question 6 that you support greater transparency in respect to these meetings. You say it would be impractical for all meetings between journalists and politicians to be recorded but you're happy for all meetings between proprietors and politicians and editors and politicians to be publicly declared:

    "How 'senior staff' is defined will dictate my views on that matter."

    What do you mean by that? Why is it practical to at the time set out meetings between proprietors and politicians, editors and politicians, but for it to stop there?

  • Do you see third paragraph from the bottom?

  • On page 3082. Do you have that?

  • Mm-hm. To be really honest with you, I can't remember now what I was referring to by "senior staff". I apologise for that.

  • As a matter of principle, I think the point you're making here is that you don't think it could be practical for all meetings between journalists and politicians to be recorded?

  • Yes. I think -- I think because then, again, it completely changes the whole balance of how things work in Westminster, because politicians and journalists speak off the record, they leak stories, they -- some politicians have better relationships with some journalists, depending on what newspapers they are, and I think if it's overregulated, I think it completely changes the whole process of how Westminster works but also prevents newspapers from getting those scoops, getting those stories from politicians who may want to leak them.

  • Is the point you're trying to make here that it's part of the discourse of politics that journalists will meet with politicians all the time and put issues to the politicians and the politicians will provide stories to the journalists. That's the stuff of political life?

  • But that there is a difference if you go up a rung to editors or proprietors who may very well be discussing policy and the impact of ideas at a level which might give rise to the suggestion that there is influence one way or the other?

  • Is that the distinction you're trying to draw?

  • I'll come and give the evidence, if you like.

  • Thank you very much for making that clearer than I could possibly.

  • So those meetings ought to be recorded, as they are?

  • By "recorded", meaning just kept of record of?

  • Would you go any further than that? If you look down the list, for example, of David Cameron's disclosure, a typical entry will be:

    "Rupert Murdoch, chairman, News Corporation, general discussion."

    And that will be it, nothing further. Would you support greater transparency than that, ie a fuller understanding of what was discussed, or is that going too far?

  • I think that's going too far because that, again, goes to a place where we can't have an open exchange of ideas. Because -- okay, I'll give you an example. If I saw the Prime Minister and we discussed Russia, we would talk about it in one way. If there was somebody sitting there and taking notes, we would talk about it in a different way, because there may be sensitive issues back home that I wouldn't want to be on record.

  • Would it make a difference if what was being discussed was a policy that affected an organisation's commercial interests? Should there be greater transparency in that?

  • I think there should be, but I don't think keeping records would be the best way. I can't tell you what -- yeah, you're absolutely right. I think there should be a way of preventing influence on governmental policy by media organisations, but I'm not sure. I might be able to think about that. I might try and think about that and write back to you.

  • Really, two other headings: your views on ethical practices and then press regulation more generally, and we can come back to some of the ideas that you might have about the future of press regulation.

    You were asked about the cultural and ethical practices of the press. You set out your views in various articles which we don't need to explore now. I just want to touch on a couple of subjects if I can very briefly. You're asked about two things. You're asked about the Information Commissioner's office and the Operation Motorman reports and you're asked about phone hacking, and you're asked what you've done in respect of the practices, if anything, that took place.

    You describe that you've firstly sought assurances that these practices either never took place and never happened in the first place, or alternatively that they've been discontinued, and you've secondly ensured that new codes of conduct are in place, particularly in respect of the Evening Standard. That's the case, as I understand it; is that correct?

  • When you say that you've "sought assurances" that these practices never took place, for example, in relation to phone hacking, what does that actually mean? Does that mean that you've asked for an investigation to take place or you've sought assurances from your editor that these practices didn't take place?

  • I went further than just speaking to the editors. I asked Andreas Whittam Smith, who is the founder and the first editor of the Independent newspaper, to carry out investigations in both the Evening Standard and the Independent titles, which he did conduct and came back with a clear -- no findings of any wrongdoings of any sort. So that was how we dealt with it, and as a result came the new code of conduct.

  • Is that in respect of not just illegal accessing of voicemails but of the Operation Motorman type practices?

  • Yes, of any practices. I can confidently say that at least on my watch, since I've acquired the Evening Standard in 2009 and the Independent in 2010, none of the journalists have been getting up to any illegal activity.

  • You were finally asked about your views of press regulation. You say that, first of all, in a democracy self-regulation is preferable to statutory regulation. You say that in respect of -- it's on the second-last and last page of your statement.

    As a matter of principle, can I just explore that? Does this mean that any kind of statutory backstop would be unacceptable to you or do you simply mean that full statutory regulation in its traditional sense would not be acceptable to you?

  • No, I think I'm not averse to statutory backstop, because I think there needs to be a way of making sure that everyone in the industry is part of this regulation, regulatory body, signed up to it, and that includes online as well. I don't see why there should be a distinction between news that's printed on dead trees and news that comes up on a digital screen. I don't mean blogs, because that's going to be impossible, but those online news sites that want to be part of a respected news source world, they should be part of this regulation.

    So I don't see any problem with giving some sort of statutory underpinning.

  • That's an interesting distinction. Might the line be drawn at anyone who is publishing content for reward? In other words, the blog you mentioned -- very difficult when one gets down to tweets, but blogs that simply people put up are one thing, but once you've started doing something and perhaps taking revenue from advertising or the rest, then that should be the other side of the line? Is that the distinction --

  • Yes, absolutely, and then there could be the -- penalties could be imposed. You give sort of a badge of honour for those who are part of it, and then the ones that are not part of it, advertisers just don't choose to advertise on.

  • There's the problem in a free country of preventing people doing what they want to do.

  • Yes, absolutely, but advertisers, as far as I can see, would like to be part of that because it creates a community in which you know that the ethics of journalism are adhered to.

  • You say this at the bottom of page 3083, which is the second-last page of your statement: that your two criteria are that self-regulation should be transparent and understandable to the public, and you say that by "transparent" you mean that all the workings of any regulatory body should be open and known across the industry:

    "There cannot be any lingering sense of an old boys' club or a point that's being made in an inexplicable manner."

    What did you mean by -- I don't want to put would words in your mouth. I think I understand what you mean. What do you mean by "the old boys' club or a point that's being made in an inexplicable manner"? Is that referring to the membership of any future press regulatory body or is that something else?

  • Well, I think it was referring to the way appointments were made to the PCC, because they were done very untransparent manner and nobody -- the public certainly don't know, but even I didn't know how the appointments were made. So I think it needs to be done in a way that's understandable, at least to the industry and to those members of the public who care to find out. So it needs to be appointed not by the industry, so -- to make it independent of the industry, because as far as I understand, the present chairman is appointed by -- well, I know he is appointed by the industry --

  • But also he/she feels beholden to those who appoint them because they may hire or fire him at any point. So it's a sort of a simple detail, but I think there should be a tenure given to the person who is appointed to any future body that may be created, that they don't feel beholden to those who have appointed him.

    But on the other points, I think it needs to be -- whether it's -- whatever it may be, it just needs to feel like it's independent. It's independent of the government but most importantly it's independent of the industry, of those who it's trying to regulate. Because it's very difficult to regulate something that you're not independent of, that you're in some way dependent on.

  • Does that mean that you wouldn't want sitting editors to be appointed?

  • No, I think they shouldn't be sitting editors. I think other individuals in this Inquiry have previously said that there should be journalistic experience and I agree with that, but I think the way to overcome that is they should be ex-editors or recently retired editors who should sit on this board.

  • And by "understandable to the public", you say, you mean self-regulation should not be shrouded in impenetrable jargon and that punishment for breaches of the code of conduct should be clearly visible to consumers of the press. The example you give is greater prominence for corrections and heavy/better publicised fines for offenders. They're both worthy options. Have you given any further thought to those?

  • I think they are -- I think that those are the most simple and yet most effective way. Coming from the newspaper industry myself, I understand and I see that those would be the most effective, because editors loathe making apologies, especially in the same place where the victim was wronged, so if it was made on the front page, it should be on the front page.

    As far as fines are concerned, again, if there's a hefty fine, I think whoever is writing their story, whoever is responsible for putting the story in, will think twice about putting it in if there's any doubt about the truth behind it.

  • You then say there are two major problems. The second of those is how to regulate the Internet, but I think you've discussed that now with Lord Justice Evgeny Leveson. It seems that you may have given thought to that. The first it is how to ensure that every media group participates in self-regulation. I think I heard you say earlier that that might be dealt with by way of some kind of statutory backstop?

  • Yes, absolutely. I'm not averse by any means. I have nothing against statutory backstop because I think everybody in the industry has to be part of this new future body in order for it to work.

  • All right. There's an awful lot more I could ask about your views on press regulation, but is there anything in particular -- we've explored some the issues. Is there anything else you would like to say about the future of press regulation or anything else that Lord Justice Leveson has to ask you? I'll ask him in a minute.

  • I think the only thing I would like to say is that it needs to make sure that the freedom of the press remains, especially of the press that holds those in power to account, because celebrity gossip, tittle tattle, is actually readily available in Russia. It's readily available in Ethiopia and it's readily available in Afghanistan. It's everywhere. So that's easy to come by. But the important stuff that holds those in power to account, that's what needs to be preserved and saved and cherished, because as far as I can see, this country has one of the most sophisticated systems, one of the most sophisticated democracies in the world, and whenever anyone criticises anything here, starting from the weather to the way government works, to the way the press works, I always say to them: "Go try living in Russia and you'll see -- you will really start valuing everything here."

  • Your speech on press freedom makes that point very, very clear, that some of the things that have caused us concern are tiny compared to the sorts of concern that you might express in other countries, and I'm sure that's right, but you've also recognised that's not to say that therefore it doesn't matter.

  • Absolutely. I think what has been happening is absolutely criminal and outrageous, and I think those responsible -- those who have committed those crimes should be punished. Because, you know, again the flipside of that, what was committed is also expected of those organisations in Russia. So -- and I think it's also important to point out that it's not just the distinction between broadsheets, the quality papers and the tabloids. It goes -- as will become apparent, it goes far beyond that. And actually, it did take -- the job that was meant to be done by the police was eventually done by the Guardian and latterly the Independent newspaper, so I think it's very important that that ability of those newspapers to investigate, to conduct investigative journalism is --

  • Yes, provided the guardians do guard the guardians.

  • I'm not talking about the newspaper. Then that's fine. The trouble is when nobody really checks up on what the organ that is looking after all of us, that is looking at what judges are doing, looking at what politicians are doing, look at what all sorts of other people are doing, actually aren't examining what they themselves are doing.

  • I think you're absolutely right. I think whatever the future body is, it needs to be robust, it needs to have teeth and it needs to be able to do its job in a way that would keep newspapers making sure that those crimes that have been committed are never committed again.

  • Yes. Do you think that I should be paying any attention to the problems that have been mentioned to me about the commerciality of print journalism?

  • The only thing I would say about that is that the two newspapers that I just mentioned that actually exposed this whole scandal, and the Times, between them, are losing more than £100 million a year, and I think that's something we should seriously think about, because there may come a time when there won't be anyone, there won't be wealthy individuals, charitable trusts, that will be willing to fund this journalism and that's the scary moment because what happens then?

    Just to give one statistic, I have spent over 75 million Lebedev money over the last three years funding the Evening Standard and the Independent. So it's a really expensive -- it's a really expensive element of British democracy that needs to be preserved at any cost.

  • Well, I agree, and I recognise that you are right that ultimately the source of funding of non-profitable operations may dry up, but what then, pray, is the answer to that?

  • I think, for the time being at least, making sure that those newspapers can carry on and carry out legitimate investigative journalism and legitimate investigations. I don't have the answer to that. I don't have the answer to what happens then. I mean, you know, newspapers are slowly migrating to online, and I think the answer -- the answer to that, as far as my personal company -- the companies that I run are concerned are trying to be innovative and trying to be imaginative. So take the Evening Standard. It was losing almost £30 million annually. Now it's about to break even. So the way that's been achieved is through changing the business model, by taking it free.

    So there are ways of -- imaginative ways of going forward and there are ways of still staying in print and still trying to make money, because what we've done on the Independent is we've launched a new newspaper, which is called the I, which is now outselling the Guardian. It's a completely new product that's 20 pence and it's a very brief briefing of the daily news but in a very concise way.

    So again, that's been a huge boost to the business model of the Independent, and together -- you know, these are not global solutions. I couldn't possibly answer your question, but these are just small examples of what could be done.

  • I have to pick you up on just one answer you gave earlier, just because it's something I think Lord Justice Leveson would want me to pick up on. You were asked about phone hacking and you say:

    "I think what has been happening is absolutely criminal and outrageous, and I think those responsible -- those who have committed those crimes should be punished. Because, you know, again the flipside of that, what was committed is also expected of those organisations in Russia."

    And then you say this:

    "I think it's also important to point out that it's not just the distinction between broadsheets, the quality papers and the tabloids. It goes -- as will become apparent, it goes far beyond that."

    What did you mean by that?

  • There's certain stories that circulate that I haven't got any proof for, but I think with time this evidence will come out and it probably will come out during the time of this Inquiry.

  • Well, whatever might emerge, we'll see, but I understood your answer to mean that there are examples of practices with which you disapprove that come from all sections of the press. That's how I read your answer.

  • But whatever else emerges during the course of the next period, then we wait to see.

  • Indeed. Those are all my questions. Mr Lebedev, is there anything else that you wish to add?

  • I think probably that's it. Apart from, once again, just saying that it's something that needs to be treasured and valued because I've seen the other side and now, at the moment, every day I speak to my father, who is constantly under attack because of the reporting of Novaya Gazeta, and it's not -- it's just -- it's all around. It's all around -- all across the board. So it's not coming from the top, it's not coming from the government; it's just the corruption all across the board and because that corruption is exposed in on a daily basis by my newspaper, the Lebedev interests, the Lebedev companies, are being constantly attacked on a daily basis.

    For example, the bank accounts that are used to fund British newspapers have been checked out by people who have been conducting checks on our banks because of -- because there's no tolerance for that. So I think it needs to be valued and cherished, but, as you rightly pointed out, all the issues that have happened and all the issues that have been exposed by this Inquiry have to be addressed.

  • Mr Lebedev, your perspective is very valuable, coming from a slightly different angle to many others. There are a couple of things that you've said you'd like to think about, and you're very welcome to write to me about that or any of the other ideas for the future. I am very keen to ensure that whatever comes out of the Inquiry works for everybody. You may have heard me say this before, but it bears repetition. It has to work for the industry, and I'm very conscious of the commercial problems the industry faces, but it does have to work for everybody else as well.

  • And therefore any thoughts that you have in that regard or perceptions that you could offer I'd be very grateful to receive during the currency of my sittings.

  • Thank you very much. I will do my best on that.

  • Right. We'll take a short break.

  • (A short break)

  • Yes, Mr Barr.

  • Thank you, sir. Our last witness this afternoon is Mr Aidan Barclay.

  • Thank you very much indeed.