It was confirmed last week that London’s Evening Standard and The Independent will merge their sports and business desks in order to reduce their wages bills. The development has prompted a fresh round of speculation about the future of the papers, which are both owned by Russian media mogul Alexander Lebedev (main image), whose foray into the British media began in 2009, when he bought the Evening Standard and promptly decided to give it away for free, rather than charge for it.
Lebedev is the latest in a long line of powerful media barons, who are able to shape societies through their vast wealth, which is often matched by vaulting ambition and bizarre eccentricities.
How much? He made billions in finance, having bought one of the few Russian banks that survived the country’s 1998 crisis. Since then, Lebedev (main image) has expanded into media – he owns part of Russian paper Novaya Gazeta, as well as The Independent and the Evening Standard in the UK.
How crazy? Before he went into business, Lebedev worked for the KGB, hassling wealthy Soviets who were illegally moving funds out of the USSR. In September, he punched billionaire property developer Sergei Polonsky on a Russian TV show. Not a proprietor you want to mess with.
How much? The Italian PM doesn’t much care for the media’s political independence – he owns a controlling share in the country’s biggest broadcaster and has reneged on election promises to sell off his assets to avoid a conflict of interest.
How crazy? The concentration of Berlusconi’s power has enabled him to survive a string of gaffes, including jokes about Nazis and an apparent willingness to defend Benito Mussolini. The 75-year-old’s current scandal, though, arising from his serial womanising, at so-called ‘bunga bunga’ parties could be the final nail in his coffin.
How much? The holdings of his publishing company fluctuated over the years but, when Packer died in 2005, he owned a stable of Australian magazines, Channel Nine and a stake in Melbourne’s Crown Casino. Packer is also credited with pioneering and popularising 50-over cricket.
How crazy? Packer’s gambling habit was legendary. He reportedly lost £18m during three weeks in London, once walking into a casino and playing £15m on four roulette tables on his own and losing it all. He also once challenged a Texas oil baron to bet £38m on a coin toss.
How much? In the 1980s, Bond was one of Australia’s most prominent businessman, with investments in media, brewing, gold-mining and aviation. However, in 1992, Bond was declared bankrupt with debts totalling £1.16bn – it was
the biggest corporate meltdown in Australian history.
How crazy? Bond bought Channel Nine from Kerry Packer in 1987 for more than £650m, only to sell it back to him five years later for about a quarter of the price. Of his audacious buyback, Packer said, “You only get one Alan Bond in your lifetime, and I’ve had mine.”
How much? The Canadian-born tycoon controlled Hollinger International, which was, at one point, the world’s third-largest newspaper conglomerate, owning hundreds of titles on both sides of the Atlantic, including The Daily Telegraph. In 2007, though, Black was convicted of fraud and sentenced to seven years’ jail.
How crazy? In his pomp, Black was an obsessive collector of Napoleon memorabilia. Prison was different – early on, Black befriended a Mafia Don who told him, “No one will bother you. If you catch a cold, we’ll find out who you got it from.”
How much? The ignominies of this year notwithstanding, Murdoch has survived, flourished, even, in an era when many of his rivals have foundered. His News Corporation owns newspapers in Australia, the UK and the US, as well as 20th Century Fox and publisher Harper Collins.
How crazy? Murdoch is known for his ruthless approach in all aspects of his life. In 1999, 17 days after divorcing his wife of 32 years, Murdoch, then 68, married Wendy Deng, a 30-year-old VP of one of his networks. That’s ruthless, alright.
William Randolph Hearst
How much? Hearst built a sprawling newspaper empire in the late 19th century and also pioneered ‘yellow journalism’, which consisted of sensational but dubious stories. Hearst was also prepared to use his papers to advance his political aspirations and, as a younger man, wanted to buy Mexico.
How crazy? The 1941 film Citizen Kane was based in part of Hearst’s life. Hearst, in his 70s when the film was released, did everything he could to prevent the film’s release.
How much? Known as ‘the first baron of Fleet Street’, the man born Max Aitken was one of Britain’s most powerful men either side of the Second World War. After the war, he turned the Daily Express into the world’s best-selling paper, and was so rich he never paid himself a salary.
How crazy? Beaverbrook, while still the country’s most powerful newspaper owner, was also the Minister of Information, responsible for Britain’s war-time propaganda, and was later in charge of fighter and bomber production.
Words: Tom Sturrock