The Powerful and the Damned—Private Diaries in Turbulent Times: Lionel Barber

From 2005 to 2020, Lionel Barber had what he called “the best job in the world”: editor of the London Financial Times. This is Barber’s account of those years and his close encounters with the great and the not-so-great (or good!).

As editor of a major newspaper, Barber meets the people who make the news: leaders, politicians, CEOs, royalty and others. Some of the stories he relates are fascinating. For example, Obama’s succinct verdict on British prime ministers: “On Blair: Sizzle and substance. On Brown: Substance. On Cameron: Sizzle.”

In 2013, Barber is invited to dinner with Putin at the Russian Embassy in London. He and John Micklethwait, the editor of The Economist, are the only two journalists present. After dinner, Putin spots a piano and asks if the guests would like to hear him play. As Barber puts it, “Well, who’s brave enough to say no?” Putin first plays Chopsticks in a high octave. “‘St. Petersburg’, he pronounces. Then he plays Chopsticks in a low octave. ‘Moscow!’ he exclaims.”

The FT’s journalism sometimes gets it into trouble with the powers that be. In 2009, the FT reported on Dubai’s indebtedness and the fact that it was saved only by a painful financial restructuring. This caused a stir with the authorities, and Barber got a call from Prince Andrew. The following conversation ensued: “HRH Duke of York: ‘Your man in Dubai, Simon Carr, is causing a lot of trouble.’ LB: ‘You mean Simeon Kerr.’ HRH Duke of York: ‘Yes, Simon Kerr…Look, I’m just passing on a message…your man is causing a lot of problems.’ LB: ‘Have you read any of Simeon’s articles?’ HRH Duke of York: ‘No. Of course not.’”

Barber writes about the warning signs of the 2008 financial collapse and the fact that the FT, like many others, completely missed these signs. During his tenure as editor, a lot happened, other than the financial crisis: Obama, the BP oil spill, the Fukushima disaster, not to mention Brexit and Trump. 

This was also a period of change for the FT. With the circulation of printed newspapers decreasing, it was time to move into the digital age. And this was one of the first things that Barber did as editor. Today, the news is first published on the FT’s website, and the print edition follows with longer stories. The FT also changed hands during his tenure: Pearson, the owner for decades, sold the paper to Nikkei, a Japanese firm.

There is a fair amount of name-dropping in the book and some cringeworthy moments. Barber boasts of being friendly with Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of The Sun, who was involved in the phone-hacking scandal that brought down The News of the World: “We’re now on first-name terms after our pre-Christmas lunch at San Lorenzo, Princess Diana’s favourite celebrity hangout”.

But there is no doubt that Barber is an excellent journalist and under his editorship, the FT made a name for stellar journalism. Journalists have to walk a fine line between holding those at the top to account without annoying them so much that they refuse the journalists access.

This does not mean that it is always sweetness and light. Barber has a shouting match on the phone with Philip Green, “the pugnacious billionaire owner of Topshop, Miss Selfridge and two superyachts parked off the coast of Monaco”. Later, Green turns up with an almond cake as a peace offering of sorts, after which “hostilities resumed”. Barber also gets a call from Gordon Brown, spluttering with rage at an FT story on his government’s backpedalling on the Tobin Tax.

By giving us a closer look at people in power and their foibles, Barber humanizes them. I also found his account of the complexities of running a newspaper of international repute extremely interesting.

Barber is scathing, perceptive, often funny, and honest about his mistakes. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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