“How He Got That Story”—An Editor’s Memoir by Lionel Barber of the Financial Times

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Tunku Varadarajan headlined “How He Got That Story”:

The fact that “The Powerful and the Damned” is self-serving and egotistical doesn’t mean that it is not an enjoyable book, at times quite delicious. Its author, Lionel Barber, was editor of the Financial Times from 2005 to 2020….The book is a memoir of Mr. Barber’s time as boss, and like many English editors of his generation, he is rarely unassuming….

A blurb on the dust-jacket from Tony Blair declares that the book is “fascinating” and offers “extraordinary insight.” This is a bit rich, you might think, given that there are 35 entries for the former British prime minister in its index. But kudos to Mr. Barber for getting a man who features so heavily in his book to offer up his gushing praise for it. Who says the politician-editor relationship can’t be symbiotic?

This method—symbiosis, in which two beings interact to mutual advantage—is one that Mr. Barber has perfected. By its operation, the public figure gets his placement in the FT—often in the shop window of a dedicated interview—and Mr. Barber gets his coveted story. As editor of one of the two best global business newspapers, he targeted the world’s political and business leaders for attention. These potentates are “accustomed to wrapping themselves in protective bubbles.” Mr. Barber kvells that he was able to “puncture” these bubbles and engage “up close and personal” with the world’s heaviest hitters “thanks to my position and the prestige of the FT.”

Mr. Barber subtitles his book “Private Diaries in Turbulent Times,” yet it isn’t a diary in an original sense, being instead a faux-journal reconstituted from his “extensive notes of interviews, conversations, and encounters.”…The Daily Mail—a British tabloid with whose editor he tussled—once described him as “a weapons-grade social climber and name-dropper extraordinaire.” Mr. Barber, in a winning show of self-deprecation, cites this barb in his book, but a kinder way to describe him would be as a world-class schmoozer….

I searched for “lunch,” “dinner,” and “breakfast”—activities that Mr. Barber engages in on a trencherman’s scale in pursuit of material for stories. The first word—lunch—appears 94 times in 430 pages. Dinner features in 63 references, and breakfast—surprisingly, given its fabled power quotient—in only 37. But the advantage of all this intimacy with consequential men and women—some of it, of course, austere and non-alimentary—is that Mr. Barber is privy to thoughts, gestures and vignettes that might otherwise never be revealed….

Mr. Barber is no stylist. His writing, often jaunty, is seldom elegant. When he’s appointed editor of the FT in 2005, “the news flashes through the newsroom like wildfire.” Elsewhere he tells us that “a financial bubble is like a train of thrill seekers on a downhill stretch with no breaks.” He describes Hank Paulson, George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary, as “one tough hombre.”

The most attractive parts of ”The Powerful and the Damned”—apart from the recherché gossip—are those where Mr. Barber professes guilt for not doing as well as he should have done as an editor. “A failure of the imagination” is how he later described his newspaper’s performance in the run-up to the financial crisis. He offers a mea culpa, also, for the coverage of Brexit in the FT, which misread Britain’s mood and threw its weight almost recklessly behind the Remain-in-Europe campaign. Mr. Barber’s Manichaean message, he says, was: “Vote Great Britain, not Little England.” The newspaper also failed to account for the possibility of a Trump win in the 2016 presidential elections. In this, of course, Mr. Barber’s FT was not alone. Nor was he an outlier in his distaste for Mr. Trump: “Sopranos on the Potomac,” he writes.

When they meet for an interview, says Mr. Barber, “Trump cannot resist reminding people that his election victory, like Brexit, made chumps out of the mainstream media.” It is to Mr. Barber’s credit that he fesses up to having been a chump when he needs to do so. A braggart he may be, and unquestionably in love with himself, but he’s never delusional.

Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

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