The Oligarch to the dying press : “Nasdarovie!”

Coincidence.  At the same time as the Russian billionaire Alexandre Lebedev was finalizing the acquisition of the British paper The Independent, France-Soir was relaunched with great fanfare and money from another oligarch, Sergey Pugachyov.

It is not a coincidence, it is an emerging pattern. A terrible one. In which huge amounts of money of questionable origin will take over dying media.

These two papers are by no means comparable. The Independent remains a remarkable newspaper. France-Soir’s luster is long gone. A sorry procession of owners and editors, all promising the miraculous “nouvelle formule” (French term for redesign), were unable to revive the once popular evening daily. Each relaunch turned to be a new set of hospital robes for the terminally ill patient. Except this time: thanks to cash from Sergey Pugachyov – in fact his 25 years-old son Alexander – the robes are silk-made, the dressing gown is pashmina and everyone seems to want a piece it.

Ten days ago, I mingled among 300 others guests, sipping a glass of Champagne on the top of the Georges Pompidou Center a Renzo Piano-designed building at the heart of Paris. Fance-Soir was celebrating the latest in a series of rebirths. Take five or six, I lost count. And I don’t count on it. France-Soir is a living-dead paper. Fifty years ago, its daily print run was a million copies. It was down to 26,000 before the latest Russian defibrillation. Never mind, tonight, c’est la fête au village. The media crowd and its usual swarm of bottom-feeders are all here. TV moguls and politicians, former ministers are lining up to kiss the oligarch’s ring. As I asked a friend why in hell so many TV and radio hasbeens did show up, he reminded me that many had been enrolled to write snippets for the paper: “Would you give up €5000 or €10,000 a month to write the occasional 100 words?”.

As a matter or fact, I would. I did. A few days before the party, a well-connected media socialite called. “You known, I can introduce you to Pugachyov… They are still looking for an editor”. I replied, a bit tersely perhaps: “…Look: a) This paper is dead-meat; b) I’ve been contacted a year ago by a headhunter working for your guy and I already said no; c) I don’t do such things. I can’t work for an oligarch. That’s beyond my moral boundaries, even if I consider them pretty fluid”…

Nothing to be proud of. I simply enjoy the luxury of still being able to pick the people I want to work with. And I do not have a overwhelming amount of respect for the old farts, many of them fairly wealthy, queueing to kiss the young tsar’s ring for a consulting or journalistic fee.

Editorial Chinese Wall (Made in Russia)

Editorial Chinese Wall (Made in Russia)

Coincidence, take II. On the very morning the new France-Soir hit the street, president Sarkozy was awarding a République’s official distinction to the paper’s general manager, Christiane Vulvert. Bad timing from a PR standpoint, one that reveals an interesting connection between the French executive branch and the paper’s owners (see this excellent piece in Le Monde).

In a nutshell: First, Mrs Vulvert is a former general manager of the Centre National du Cinéma, the munificent French taxpayer subsidies pipeline dedicated to the French movie industry’s welfare. She’s part of the (French) nomenklatura. Second, the €20m Mr Pugachyov Sr. is pouring into France-Soir is small token compared to real deal. One of his key businesses (aside from real estate, pharmaceuticals or mining companies) is a modern shipyard that could be a perfect fit to built the four Mistral-class helicopter-carriers that France hopes to sell Russia. Nothing related of course. Even though, according to Le Monde, the “Dossier France-Soir” is followed by a close Sarkozy advisor (his press secretary was at the launch party). Very unlikely to see France-Soir becoming a strong critic of the French government.

These complicated circumvolutions actually buy very little influence. France-Soir version 6.0 or 7.0 remains a crappy paper. The cost of the Centre Pompidou party would have been better invested in a nice design, to say nothing of the editorial team. Two days after the relaunch, the paper published a supposed exclusive of a French pop star bathing in Saint-Barth. An unbroken chain of sloppy writing, editing and fact-checking led to the publication of a four year-old photograph; the journalistic environment was so lightweight that nobody knew how or cared enough to double-check the picture.

Instead of the half-million circulation its promoters tout, even with the editorial breadth and depth provided by former TV stars, France-Soir, will soon be back to a a tenth of that.

The British Independent is a much tougher cookie. Launched in 1986 by British press defectors, it stood at the forefront of sovereign journalism for a decade at least. Until the economics struck hard. Since 1994, the Irish-owned paper lost a total of £200m ($300m, €223m), including £12m in 2009. (For more business details, the Guardian provides, as usual, high-quality coverage.) Its circulation, once at 400,000 slid to 183,500, causing advertising to plummet. The business equation spoke with cold finality. Cost to close the paper: £30m; cost of selling it: £20m. Enter the former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev. He already owns the London Evening Standard and, with Mikhail Gorbachev, co-owns the Novaya Gazeta (whose journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006).

The Independent will undertake a major restructuring, most likely aiming at synergies with the Evening Standard. As far as political orientation is concerned, Lebedev positions himself as an advocate of free speech. Discussing a previous acquisition, he told The Guardian: “In the case of Rupert Murdoch and News International, it is a business. But it is not for me. I bought the Standard because I am quite a curious person and money is an instrument to create things in favor of society.” Between the right wing media mogul and the former spy, it’s a tough choice indeed. For Mr. Lebedev to cast himself as mother Theresa compared to Darth Vador-Murdoch might be a bit of a stretch. A week before the acquisition, Murdoch’s Times of London published a great varnish-remover profile of Mr. Lebedev (to which the billionaire responded).

Why would oligarchs’ money be less acceptable than any business-induced fortune for media ventures? In my mind, there are three reasons:

1 / These piles of cash have nothing in common with a Bill Gates-like fortune. Most of it comes from the diversion (to put it gently) of public assets that occured in the 1990s under Boris Yelstin, during the massive privatizations. While the lower end of the Russian Federation is still struggling, that group of “businessmen” is swelling. Russian top billionaires doubled their wealth over the last 12 months, to a stunning $139bn (story in Ria Novotsi).

2 / The scope and the structure of business interests with frequent government involvement inevitably breeds large-scale conflicts of interest. These tensions will be resolved at the expense of journalistic independence. There is not a shred of hope to see the Chinese Wall that usually separates editorial and business getting any  stronger than a Japanese paper wall.

3 / When you look closely at the press in the former USSR, what you see most of the time is editorial obedience. Until recently, a Russian friend told me, the Komsomolskaya Pravda’s website publicly posted rates for paid-for editorials – destined to blend in the paper’s columns, of course. And last year, in Kiev, the editor-in-chief of a Ukrainian paper candidly pointed out for me which parts of his paper were paid-for and which one were “for free”. You had to use a magnifier to see the difference.

It will be decades before things get better. Even in the Baltic sates I visited, progress is painstakingly slow.

To extend their reach, oligarchs needs strong PR and influence vehicles. Medias on their deathbed – especially print – are therefore easy preys. A mildly but pervasively corrupt country like France provides an ideal terrain for such shenanigans. Hosed with cash, many forget the only thing oligarchs deserve is unforgiving journalistic coverage. Not complacency of any kind from public officials or the media elite.

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