AFP - Russian tycoon and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev vowed Wednesday to back "free and independent" journalism in London's Evening Standard after buying a majority stake in the struggling newspaper.
Lebedev agreed to pay a nominal sum -- reportedly one pound -- to buy what he called the "iconic" daily, which like other newspapers is battling amid radical upheaval in the industry in the face of the explosion of online news.
"The Lebedev family is delighted to be investing in the Evening Standard," he said in a statement issued by the newspaper's parent company, Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT).
"We are strong supporters of a free and independent press and we greatly admire the Evening Standard as an iconic publication with its pedigree of fine journalism and commentary.
And he added: "We are committed to strengthening the newspaper's competitiveness and look forward to working with Associated, which will continue to be involved as a minority shareholder."
The deal, under which the Associated Newspapers group, DMGT's newspaper division, will retain a 24.9 percent stake, is expected to be completed by next month. No other newspaper publication owned by DMGT plc is involved in the transaction.
Although many Russian oligarchs have made their mark in Britain -- most notably Roman Abramovich who owns Chelsea Football Club -- it is the first time that one of them has owned a major British newspaper.
Lebedev was a member of the Soviet Union's KGB foreign intelligence services, working under diplomatic cover in London from 1987-1991. He left with the rank of lieutenant colonel and launched a business career which incorporates banking and aviation.
The DMGT statement said Associated Newspapers Ltd "has agreed the sale of a majority interest in the Evening Standard for a nominal sum to Evening Press Ltd," owned by Lebedev and his son Evgeny.
"A new company, Evening Standard Ltd, will be established that will own the Evening Standard and in which Associated will be a minority shareholder with 24.9 percent," it added.
Lebedev will be the chairman of the new company, while his son will be senior executive director, it added.
Like other newspapers, the Evening Standard is struggling with the explosion of online news, while also facing fierce competition from freesheet rivals in the London market. It is the only paid-for city-wide newspaper in the capital. Its circulation was 287,000 in December 2008.
DMGT chairman Lord Jonathan Rothermere voiced confidence in the Russian's ability to steer the newspaper through troubled times.
"We are very proud to have owned the Evening Standard. It has a long and distinguished history as one of the world's great city newspapers, based on outstanding journalism," he said.
"I believe that Alexander Lebedev shares my commitment to newspapers and will continue to invest in the Evening Standard. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate that DMGT remains fully committed to journalism and newspaper ownership," he added.
The deal was reportedly close to being completed last week, when The Guardian newspaper said Lebedev was in advanced talks on the purchase for the paper, which it said was understood to be for a symbolic one pound.
The Guardian reported the deal was likely to have been discussed at the highest levels of government in Britain.
Relations between Britain and Russia have been frosty since the poisoning in London in November 2006 of the former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko.
The Evening Standard deal came after a French court last week gave the go-ahead for a company owned by the son of Russian oligarch Sergei Pugachev to take over the evening newspaper France-Soir.