Lionel Barber’s Chronicle of his time as FT Editor

05.11.20 Publication:

“The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times”. By Lionel Barber. W.H.
Allen, 460pp

There aren’t really any other jobs like it. For to pick out ‘a day in the life’ of the editor of the
modern Financial Times, as at The Economist, is almost impossible, since the chosen day
could be spent almost anywhere in the world, and its features are the stuff of serendipity,
apart, of course, from the helpfully regular rhythm of putting out a publication. You never
know who you might meet or what events or trends you might need to think about. Which
is the pleasure, the privilege and the challenge, rolled into one.

At one level, I used to think of editing The Economist as like chairing a constantly
changing seminar, listening to and trying to guide extremely talented journalists whose job,
like that of spies, is to know what is going on, why, and where it might be leading. At
another level, though, it is like being pulled in multiple directions at once, as you try to make
decisions about the interests of readers in San Francisco, Seoul and Berlin, or about the
relative importance of telecoms and terrorism, all while having your ear bent by the
powerful, the needy and the aggrieved, the latter often accompanied by lawyers.

What Lionel Barber has provided, with this engaging chronicle of his 14 years at the
FT’s helm, is an account of what happened in the world his paper was covering, and who
whispered or yelled what into the editor’s ear. As we well know, that world was fascinating
and fearsome by turns, from the 2008 financial crisis to Japan’s tsunami of 2011, from
Europe’s debt and migration crises to Brexit and Trump, all backdropped by the geopolitical
and technological rivalry between the US and China. History was being made, with the post-
war international order first eroded and then actively undermined by its own main creator,
the United States, and with technological disruption swirling all around.

Like many diaries, these are tempting to just dip in and out of, for the name-checking
can get a tad repetitive – golly, another call/breakfast/dinner with Lloyd Blankfein/Mario
Draghi/Georgette Mosbacher – and the travelogue is rich with anecdote but lighter on
reflection. Yet, as a quintessential journalist like Mr Barber would say, to dip in and out
would risk missing the real story.

That story is above all one of the broadening and strengthening of the FT as the
media business passed through its own turbulent times. Newspapers were being up-ended
by the internet, while the FT needed to pick itself up after a sticky, even stagnant patch in
the early 2000s. Mr Barber did so by investing in rigour and quality, and by grasping the
opportunity that digitalisation provided to move from a print-first to a digital-first service,
enabling his commercial colleagues to re-engineer the business away from one relying on
advertising to one driven by subscriptions.

No previous FT editor would have published memoirs featuring working visits to
places as varied as Rwanda, Myanmar, Japan and Brazil, nor encounters with
businesspeople as diverse as Philip Green, Masayoshi Son and Huawei’s Ren Zhengfei. For
although the pre-Barber FT was printed around the world it was not truly global in
readership or mentality. Now it is.

The narrative of how it got there begins with a messy and costly settlement in 2005-
06 of a legal battle with the financier Terry Smith, which Mr Barber had inherited. It passes
through the dramatic sale of the paper in 2015 by Pearson to Japan’s Nikkei, with the
adjustments but also new investment that the change of ownership brought. It ends with
what as an outsider I am free to describe as a series of magnificent achievements of
investigative journalism, notably the exposure of the ‘Presidents Club’ charity dinner in
London, where sexual harassment was rife, and, most recently, of the vast accounting fraud
at the German payments company Wirecard.

That cycle from legal mess to investigative success confirms an important principle
behind the journalistic vocation of holding power to account. As Mr Barber clearly
understood, to do so effectively a publication needs first to build and maintain a reputation
for quality, reliability and independence, along with a sound business model, for that earns
it the chance to take risks with its journalists’ time and the paper’s reputation.

What Mr Barber calls “the powerful” will enjoy their roles as dramatis personae,
while “the damned” may call him to complain. Inevitably, however, this drama will be read
most closely by his editorial and commercial colleagues, for they have been its principal
actors. I suspect they will be grateful at his generosity to colleagues he has named; faintly
narked that their boss used ‘I’ more often than ‘we’; but third, overwhelmingly proud at
what has been achieved and what can be to come.