The owner of the Independent newspaper – and the newly-launched 'i' – has told the UK's newspaper editors, gathered in Glasgow, that he is committed to investing further in journalism “to stop corruption on a global scale”, while maintaining an “arm's length” distance from his editors.
Alexander Lebedev – who also owns the London Evening Standard and the Independent's sister title, the Independent on Sunday – was speaking at the annual conference of the Society of Editors, being held in Glasgow on account of its ongoing president being Sunday Post editor, Donald Martin.
The Russian businessperson said: “No one here at this conference takes for granted the freedom of the press. But it is always worth noting that such freedoms can crumble and must be fought for and protected…. Newspapers have crucial roles in bringing information to millions of people in a clear, concise way, putting out what is often the first rough-edged page of history. But it is also a defence against tyranny, corruption, injustice and, at times, can and should be a source of light, shining into the dark areas where the powerful and corrupt want to keep things hidden.”
He added: “Good journalism is, as has memorably been said, about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. The press does crucially act as a brake on wrong-doing by exposing it and the repercussion is that makes not just Britain but other places all round the world realise that wrong deeds can and will be uncovered. This leads to better justice, governance, policing, business practices and so to a more truthful, fair and honest society.
“In the Soviet Union we lived in a society where there was no free press. To find out what was happening in our own country we needed the foreign media, or to have access to dissident literature and newspapers which were illegal. The distributors of these poorly printed pamphlets risked jail, the writers and editors and publishers risked their lives. It was always inspiring to be able to read of the stories of people fighting or risking their lives to report repression, torture, wrongful imprisonment or even simple accounts of banned religious faith. It struck a chord with me that journalism was not just random information blithely read or passed around; it was the key to a free society. It was and is a fundamental structure of a democracy.
“President Gorbachev made the biggest sacrifice of power of any one man in the 20th century when he disbanded the Soviet Union and ushered in an era of perestroika and glasnost. He wanted change and openness, rather than a blinkered and shut society. He wanted to allow people to make choices in their lives for themselves and he risked his life and liberty to do so.
“I am pleased to be a shareholder with President Gorbachev of Novaya Gazetta. It is a paper that employs journalists who every day try to push back the boundaries of what is allowed to be told. Some of our journalists have been murdered as a result of what they discovered and then wrote about. We have had intimidation and threats but yet every day these journalists go into their offices or into the streets to be able to report on what is happening. It was no accident that I was unable to be in London on the day I bought the Evening Standard; I was attending a funeral of three colleagues who were murdered simply for doing their job.
“Even today Gorbachev has been calling for greater democracy and change in Russia so that there is not so much stifling state control. The power of the state when unbridled is frightening. Men in masks are just a small taste of that. They can snuff out hope, liberty, freedom and human happiness. Being able to report what is happening in the corridors of power, on the battlefield, behind closed doors is an un-negotiable principle of journalism, to hold people up to account so that they will behave and so bring about more good things in society for more people.”
On the subject of resisting the temptation to interfere in the editorial of his newspapers, he continued: “I think that it is essential that journalists retain the power rather than the proprietors. I have always pledged to keep at arm's length from my editors in their decisions about what goes in the papers. Because journalism is a fundamental structure on which democracy and freedom of the individual is built, it is essential that the power of the media is not tied too closely to any single individual. In fact, I have made sure I have very limited influence on my papers in the UK or Russia.”
He went on: “And the good news is that we have seen great change in Russia. It is far from perfect but we have moved on, generally for the better. There is a freedom to travel, to talk, to print, but still there are state controls – there is still a long way to go. If I have one particular message to move us forward from Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika: it is transparency – to act as an agent against corruption. Investigative journalism is something I want to invest in more.”
He later pledged: “I want to invest further in ways to stop corruption on a global scale. The millions of bank accounts held by shady people in sunny places are not the right way for our countries to run their economies. We need transparency and for the international community of journalists to be able to work together, to report on the billions of dollars that are hidden and often stolen. Russians pay bribes totaling $300 billion a year, equivalent to almost a quarter of Russia’s gross domestic product, according to Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee.”
The conference continues tomorrow and Tuesday. Martin is a former editor-in-chief at The Herald & Times Group.
Earlier during his speech, Lebedev said: “When I was in my 20s, after I joined the Intelligence Service [in the USSR], my access to uncensored information accelerated. I could read anything I wanted and suddenly I saw the full extent of two sides of reporting, one censored and distorted by government interference and the other – often risk-taking, dissident, pro democracy literature – free, often chaotic and yet so courageous in holding up mirrors to often unpallatable truths.
“As an intelligence officer stationed in London, I read a lot, including the Evening Standard. It was part of my job and I could see as much information and analysis as I wanted. I was no journalist but I was good at news analysis. That was my job. Sorry to disappoint those who think that everyone connected to the KGB is involved in James Bond plots of derring-do. Every morning I would read seven or eight newspapers and mark the pages.”
He finished: “Journalists and proprietors need to be bold. We need to be inventive, but, above all else, we need to guard our right to express views, expose facts and to keep journalists able to do what they do best: shining lights in unwelcome places and making the most powerful accountable to the public.
“I would like to end with a quotation from Anton Chekhov, our great Russian playwright: 'Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.' This is what every editor here does. It is not only good journalism, but it is an essential fabric of democracy.”