By John Helmer, Moscow
There is rule on corruption which everyone in public office in every corner of the world knows – you mustn’t use your office to advance your private profit. When he was Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov was not supposed to put lucrative city business in the way of himself or his wife, Yelena Baturina. So in 2009, when she was accused in a London newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch – then in a billion-dollar conflict himself with the Moscow city administration — of using up to £100 million to buy a London palace in which to live with the Mayor and their children; and when Luzhkov was accused by innuendo of failing to disclose the deal, Baturina sued in the UK High Court for libel. Six months after this story ran, the newspaper and its proprietor News International, settled out of court, apologizing to Baturina, retracting the claims, and paying her costs and damages.
That ought to have been an object lesson in taking care how big-city mayors tread in London, and how the British media report the footfalls. So what was New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a self-estimating billionaire and owner of the Bloomberg financial media group, doing at the headquarters of the Financial Times (FT) in London in October? Was he there to talk up the business of the city he’s been elected to represent, or was he there to discuss buying the FT for himself, as the New York Times (NYT) , a commercial rival, reported this week?
According to the NYT report, “in October Mr Bloomberg visited the London headquarters of The Financial Times, a few blocks away from Bloomberg L.P.’s giant new London complex”. The report went on to cite several people familiar with the matter at Bloomberg. That Bloomberg formula for insider information in advance of a deal confirmed the company was working on “a possible deal for The Financial Times in hypothetical terms, awaiting a decision from Mr Bloomberg.” To assist Bloomberg, his company had done a study of whether the FT, among other papers, might be for sale. The mayor’s office spokesman reportedly “declined to comment on [Bloomberg’s] conversations about the paper”.
But how about what he said at the paper? When exactly, the mayor’s spokesman, Marc LaVorgna, was asked, did Bloomberg pay his visit; whom did he meet on the occasion; and what were the subjects and purposes of the meeting? LaVorgna refused to answer.
Sources on the newsroom floor of the FT say the disclosure of Bloomberg’s visit is causing “quite a buzz”. That’s because Bloomberg’s visit has been kept secret until now. It’s also because Bloomberg didn’t spend time talking to FT personnel about New York City. In Luzhkov terms, Bloomberg and the FT were talking pure biznes – well, withdraw the adjective.
Lionel Barber is the editor of the FT, so he was asked to confirm the day on which Bloomberg came calling. Barber was also asked the same questions as Bloomberg – whom did he meet? why? Barber refused to speak directly. Instead, a spokesman took the written version of the questions, and then replied: “We are declining to comment.” The spokesman was then asked by telephone whether Barber means to say the Bloomberg visit didn’t take place. The spokesman responded: “we are neither confirming nor denying that the visit took place.”
That sounds like the visit was not only secret from the Mayor’s and from the newspaper management’s and owner’s point of view, but that together they were talking about a sale – a private deal, not a mayoral duty, by Bloomberg. “We are declining to comment on what was said”, Barber’s spokesman added.
To Russian businessmen who regard the FT as a platform on which to launch pitches for the sale of their shares or bonds, it isn’t likely to matter if Bloomberg goes through with his takeover. As a medium Bloomberg has probably been a softer touch for PR agents acting for Russian clients, cheaper too. Fractionally, Bloomberg the mayor has been softer on Mikhail Prokhorov than the FT – but at least the mayor could claim to have been earning a dividend from Prokhorov’s investment in the Brooklyn Yards project. As for anything of more permanent value than that, noone in Russia cares about that one thing in the FT – the Saturday gardening column by Robin Lane Fox. This is because there hasn’t been a Russian to invest serious money and taste in a garden on the scale of the Rothschilds, or others in France and the US whom Fox esteems – at least not since the Yusupov princes laid out Arkhangelskoye.