INDEPENDENT News & Media (INM) is strongly considering selling its two London-based lossmaking newspaper titles – the Independent and Independent on Sunday – to Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev.
INM confirmed, yesterday, that it has entered an exclusive, non-binding, agreement with Mr Lebedev and is engaged in discussions with him, “with regard to the future ownership” of the two titles. It is understood that he is the only interested party in the assets.
The Russian has previously been linked with a move for the Independent titles but is believed only to have had contact with the newspaper’s editor, Simon Kelner. Yesterday’s announcement suggests the owner of London’s Evening Standard is now talking to INM at plc level.
The new agreement with Mr Lebedev gives him exclusive interest in the titles for a period up to February 15.
If a sale is agreed, the move would be a huge U-turn on behalf of INM. The sale of the two titles has been a traditional proposal by high-profile independent shareholder, Denis O’Brien as a way of reducing the group’s debt levels but the move has always been fiercely defended against by the Gavin O’Reilly-led INM board, which recently said thetwo titles could break even by the end of next year.
It was claimed, earlier this year, that the London titles were losing up to €27m per year, or around €75,000 per day.
In a statement, INM said: “It should be emphasised that these discussions are still preliminary at this stage and are subject to due diligence, agreement on the financial consequences of the transaction for INM and a number of substantive contractual conditions being fully satisfied to all parties.
“As such, there is no certainty that these discussions will lead to the finalisation of a transaction of any kind.
“The key commercial terms of these discussions are subject to a non-disclosure agreement,” it added.
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