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January 22, 2009

The Lebedev Standard, Part 4: Are former KGB officers “fit and proper”?

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

Time to confess. Last week, instead of checking out the potential for government oversight of Alexander Lebedev’s purchase of the Standard, I rambled on hazily about the possibilities. Mea culpa. 

Subsequently, there seems to have been a bit more haziness during discussions between DMGT and the FT, which reports that the deal is ‘not subject to regulatory approval”.

Amanda Andrews at the Telegraph has other ideas:

The Government can intervene in the potential takeover of the Evening Standard by former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, if it thinks there are public interest issues. 

Government sources today said the Secretary of State. . . could intervene if [he] believes a takeover could give rise to concerns about the “plurality of views” or “the free expression of opinion”.

According to the Tory MP Richard Ottaway, national security is another of the ‘public interest’tests that could be applied by the government.

At the Times, Dan Sabbagh suggests that concerns over the deal will increase at Westminster. He’s probably correct about that. But there are some delicate political considerations in all of this.

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It makes sense for a Tory backbencher like Ottaway to call for an inquiry. Whether the government will grant it remains to be seen.

From this perspective, the vague promise that Alexander Lebedev will impart a more “progressive” tone to the Standard feels like appropriate bait for a media-conscious minister like Lord Mandelson. Especially during the run-up to a general election.

By the same token, common sense suggests that Sabbagh is correct when he suggests that the ‘public interest test ought surely to be invoked when spies buy newspapers”. (Spies? Doesn’t he mean former spies? Or is there truly no escape for a career KGB man?)

Of course, it’s in News International’s interest that concerns should multiply. Wapping is presumably curious about any side deals that might have been designed to limit the options available to The London Paper.

If Lord Mandelson refers the Standard deal to Ofcom, he will be creating the perfect conditions for leaks and/or disclosure.

Cleverly, Sabbagh points out that failing to invoke the public interest test would lead some observers to ‘question not only why it does not apply but also whether it should exist at all”.

You’d have to guess that Rupert Murdoch — no stranger to this kind of thing — would be among those asking both questions.

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