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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Evening Standard cannot sustain £1m weekly losses, closure must be imminent

I was reliably told a few days ago that the Standard, London’s free evening paper, is losing £1 million a week.

 

That’s serious money, even for men with pockets as deep as Evgeny Lebedev and his father Alexander, a Russian banker and former KGB officer.

 

It must mean that the newspaper is at imminent risk of closing. And that threat was underlined by another story I heard.

 

A publisher close to Evgeny told him the Standard was no longer viable as a newspaper and advised him to close it.

 

Lebedev replied: “Not before Boris has given me my peerage.”

 

That has now happened. On November 19, 2020, he became Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia and, cloaked in ermine, has taken his place on the red leather benches of the House of Lords.

 

Time was when the Standard was a must-read for every Fleet Street journalist.

 

You’d listened to Radio 4’s Today programme, caught the headlines on TV, skimmed the morning papers – paying particular attention to the Mail and The Sun – and London’s evening paper was the last chance to catch up on that day’s breaking stories before you were at your desk.

 

Looking beyond the news pages, we got to read the work of Canadian-born theatre critic Milton Shulman, who was married to Drusilla Beyfus, who wrote about etiquette, often for the Daily Express. Their daughter Alexandra became editor of British Vogue.

 

Or Robert Fox, the Standard’s Defence Editor, who distinguished himself by his reporting of the Falklands conflict, especially as troops of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment battled Argentine forces dug in at Goose Green. Margaret Thatcher said she did not believe Britain was winning until she heard Fox’s account on BBC in May, 1982.

 

Then there was the acid tipped pen of Brian Sewell, the impossibly posh-voiced art critic; the brilliant film reviews of Alexander Walker, three times Critic of the Year at the British Press Awards; the expert food writing of Fay Maschler; and the delightfully daft Bristow cartoon strip, featuring, among many others, Mr Gordon Blue, the culinary genius behind the firm’s canteen.

 

The Evening Standard had some fine editors, too, among them Michael Foot, Max Hastings, Paul Dacre, Simon Jenkins and the doyen of them all, Charles Wintour, who spent two separate periods at the helm and was the father of Anna, Editor in Chief of Vogue since 1988.

 

Now, however, the Standard, like many newspapers, has lost its way,. It may be a free sheet but, as the Drone recently reported, they can’t even give it away. Latest figures show its distribution has fallen 27 per cent in just a year and now stands at fewer than 300,000.

 

That’s sad for a paper with such a proud history starting in 1827.

 

 In 2009, Alexander Lebedev bought a controlling stake from Associated Newspapers and gave the paper to his son Evgeny, then 29, to run. From the start, he treated it as a plaything and a means of worming his way into the British Establishment.

 

He appointed former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as editor, a curious role for a man with little, if any, experience of journalism. After him, Emily Sheffield, sister of David Cameron’s wife Samantha and a friend of Osborne. She was at least a journalist for Vogue but irritated readers in the middle of a financial crisis by boasting of her holidays and fashion buys on social media. She lasted 15 months.

 

Recently the paper has been edited by Dylan Jones, the former editor of GQ magazine.

 

While Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, Lebedev Jr kept the paper right behind him. The two became close and eventually it paid off for Evgeny with his elevation to the Lords.

 

During the pandemic, the paper lost readers as lockdown took effect. It tried delivering copies to readers’ homes but it never really recovered from the loss of its captive audience of regular commuters. When Covid receded, working from home proved to be the next challenge.

 

After he gained control of the Standard, Alexander Lebedev, who was then worth $3 billion, told the Guardian it was “a good way to waste money.”

 

He must now be asking himself that old Larry Lamb question: “How prescient do I have to be?”

 *****

 What’s happening to our sports stars? They’re all cracking up.

 

The sports pages of The Times last Friday read like a consultant’s notes after doing his rounds on the mental ward.

 

The fragility of elite players in rugby, football, cricket, tennis, athletics – even snooker – is covered in story after story about how the weight of expectation is crushing them.

 

The back page was headlined: “Farrell might never play for England again”. This was a story about how England rugby captain Owen Farrell is likely to miss his team’s summer tour to Japan and New Zealand.

 

Farrell, 32, had already revealed that he was taking a break from international rugby for the sake of his and his family’s mental health. Fans had booed him during England’s recent World Cup campaign, many believing that he was not the right choice at fly half.

 

Of course, the trolls on social media had their vile, unregulated say too. And the Press has taken some stick for having the audacity to side with fans and suggest that Farrell’s great friend George Ford was the better pick at No. 10.

 

Ex-England fly half (though not often enough) Stuart Barnes felt compelled to write a long Times column explaining why he agreed with the fans, who he said had the right to boo – not the player but the coach who selected him.

 

One page further back, Matt Dickinson, before discussing Farrell’s plight, recalls the abuse that befell David Beckham – and his fiancée at the time, Victoria – in the 1998-99 season when Manchester United achieved football’s Treble. Beckham said it forged in him an inner steeliness but made him less trusting.

 

Four pages further and we read how gifted but under-achieving Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios has thanked Andy Murray for helping him to overcome suicidal thoughts after Murray had spotted signs of self-harm on Kyrgios’s body. The piece ends with contact details for the Samaritans.

 

And right at the end of the sports section – or the beginning, depending on your starting point – was Alyson Rudd’s review of some of the year’s sporting books. She praises one called Good for a Girl, by Lauren Fleshman, which tells how young female athletes, under pressure to maintain a whippet-like frame, develop eating disorders that can lead to bone fractures.

 

Rudd also covers Unbreakable, the autobiography of Ronnie O’Sullivan, probably snooker’s greatest ever player, and his constant struggle with the black dog of depression.

 

Leaving aside whether the theme was deliberate or just odd news editing, how has sport come to this?

 

I cannot imagine the former England (and British and Irish Lions) rugby captain Bill Beaumont, now chairman of World Rugby, allowing mental health issues to burden him too much.

 

Beaumont, an inspirational skipper, won 34 caps for his country and was carried shoulder high from the field after the team’s shock 1980 Grand Slam triumph, their first for 23 years.

 

Or Colin Cowdrey, who at Lord’s in 1963 came out to bat left-handed (he was naturally right-handed) with a broken arm in a Test match. England were playing against West Indies, who possessed some of the fastest and fiercest bowlers in the history of the game and one of them, Wes Hall, had snapped Cowdrey’s arm above the wrist with a vicious, lifting delivery.

 

He had to retire hurt but came back to the field wearing a plaster cast, smiling, with the match agonisingly poised. All three results were possible. Just two balls were left in the day with one wicket to fall and England needed six to win. It ended in a draw and Cowdrey did not have to face Hall again.

 

But that’s pressure. If a man is going to crack, that would be the time it might happen.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the effects of stress – or denigrating today’s sportsmen. They are fitter, faster and stronger – at least physically – than players have ever been. But something has gone terribly wrong for so many to be suffering from mental illness.

 

At the root of it is money. Cowdrey, a man of independent means, left Brasenose College, Oxford, before he had completed his degree, to pursue his career in cricket in an era of Gentlemen (amateurs) and Players (professionals).

 

Cowdrey was a Gentleman and would arrive for the day’s play in a Jaguar, already changed into tailormade white flannels.

 

Beaumont played his rugby before the union game turned professional and became brutal, highly dangerous (think of all those players suing in a class action over the damage done by repeated concussions) and almost unrecognisable as the game I played at school. In between matches, he ran the family textile business in Chorley, Lancashire.

 

Both men loved their sport and when their playing days were over, they became administrators.

 

Now, an exceptional rugby player such as South African Handre Pollard can earn £1 million a year. And that’s for turning out in front of a crowd of 10,000 most weeks. For cricketers, there are untold riches to be seized by playing in the Indian Premier League.

 

The pressure to perform is immense and in the end, it takes its toll.

 *****

 I hear that Jane Memmler, former travel editor of this parish, has wrestled free from Reach’s loveless embrace and gone home to count her wedge.

 

Shame, she passed some enjoyable trips my way on the Sunday Express. I tried to repay her with good copy and, once, after a glorious break in Vienna, with a Sachertorte, the city’s delicious chocolate cake, which I miraculously managed to get home in one piece.

 

I remember filing a story to her in which I described sitting on a seafront somewhere, sipping a coffee and watching the world go by.

 

A query came winging back: How much was the coffee? Now, I’m a stickler for detail but at first I thought that was a bit bonkers. Yet she was right, of course. Travel writing relies on detail, not extravagant turns of phrase.

 

And being a disorganised hoarder, I was still able to turn out my pockets and find the receipt to answer her question.

 *****

 Camilla Tominey, who used to cover the Royals for the Sunday Express and is now an associate editor at the Daily Telegraph, has railed in her own newspaper against its attempted takeover by Redbird IMI, an investment fund backed by the United Arab Emirates, which she complained was led by a “sexist regime”.

 

“It doesn’t pass the sniff test,” said Tominey.

 

On the face of it, this is either recklessly brave journalism or the longest professional suicide note in Fleet Street history.

 

However, there is one other possibility. It is rumoured that she was interviewed for the job of Deputy Editor at The Times. And if you’re looking to move, it doesn’t do any harm to set your stall out.

 *****

 Reach CEO Jim Mullen is simultaneously axing 450 staff and giving away £600 million to shareholders. Just another example of a failed boss buying back his job on the never-never.

 

RICHARD DISMORE


5 December 2023