x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tea with Lionel Barber of the Financial Times

The editor shares his assessment of British versus American journalism, comments on the financial crisis and the recovery, and explains his philosophy for running one of the world's great newspapers.

Chris Burke for The National
Chris Burke for The National

A Formula One Grand Prix is always about more than mere motor racing, even when there is a championship at stake. Among the royalty, celebrities, models and Bollywood stars who washed up on these shores last weekend was the editor of the Financial Times.

Editors of the pink paper are generally serious and donnish, about as likely to pitch up at an F1 race as streak through Threadneedle Street in the heart of the City of London. But Lionel Barber is a rather different figure. Appointed five years ago to the top position at the relatively advanced age of 50, he has rejuvenated the paper, bringing in a clutch of high-profile signings including Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, and even finds time to write profiles and columns. An editor writing? Whatever next?

Mr Barber's latest appearance in the Weekend edition was a description of an encounter with Imran Khan, the former Pakistan cricket captain and now seasoned politician. Other journalists might have engaged in a lengthy debate about how to end feudalism in Pakistan or whether the country is a failed state. Instead, Mr Barber borrowed a bat and pads from his Islamabad correspondent and faced an over of slow bowling from the great man, and ran the piece complete with a series of pictures.

Such audacity may risk ridicule in a newspaper office, but it was a quirky idea and made an entertaining read. But why was Mr Barber in the Emirates? Is he a petrolhead or hoping for a chance to dance with Kate Moss at the Etoile nightclub? And why wasn't he at the Group of 20 meeting in Seoul?

"I was at a conference in Singapore," he says. " Bob Zoellick wanted me to speak. I've known him for more than 20 years, and he likes to be interviewed by me. I'm on the way home, but I thought it would be interesting to stop here. I haven't been to the Gulf since 2008."

Bob is Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank. Being editor of the FT means you can hobnob with the great and the good. When I met Mr Barber, clearly another reason for his visit, we sat down in rather less salubrious surroundings. I was hoping to emulate the FT feature Lunch with the FT and had invited him to breakfast at the Sheraton Khalidiya. When we met at 9 o'clock he had already had breakfast, so we went downstairs to the coffee shop, where I ordered a cappuccino. He asked for Assam tea, and when the waitress looked blank, settled for English Breakfast Tea instead.

With a trim figure dressed in brown trousers, a blue blazer and a gold tie, he looks more like austerity than stimulus, although the brown handkerchief in his top pocket adds a sartorial touch. He has dark hair and cloudy dark blue eyes that glisten like marbles when you ask him a question that he doesn't like.

He has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but his staff have only good things to say about him, even when he insists on talking to them in German. Among his peers, he keeps a low profile. John Witherow, the editor of The Sunday Times, says he feels unable to comment because he has "very little to do with him". Frank Kane, another former Sunday Times man, now our senior business correspondent, remembers subbing Mr Barber's copy when he first joined the FT. "The thing I remember most about him was he couldn't make the deadlines," he says. "He came from the more leisurely weekly pace of The Sunday Times, and was always late with copy for the FT's daily schedule. He's probably improved since though."

Mr Barber had spent the previous couple of days gauging the mood in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as meeting a number of senior officials and businessmen and women. "The mood is a little bit more sober," he said. "But people are not down at all. There's still a tremendous opportunity and a sense of ambition."

While the FT got a head start in the Gulf four years ago, its competitors are gearing up. The Times is now printed in Dubai, while the International Herald Tribune has launched a weekly section devoted to the Middle East, and The Wall Street Journal is rumoured to be launching an edition here. Mr Barber spent 10 years of his 20-year career living in America, with his last role as US managing editor of the FT. He is well qualified to compare the great newspaper titles on both sides of the Atlantic.

"British journalism is more concise," he says. "It's more partisan, cut and thrust, and inventive. American journalism at its best can be superb in terms of deep and original reporting. But it can also be ponderous. American journalism has suffered from a lack of competition in the print space, and not really adapting fast enough. They have made some changes, but it's coming a bit late."

Even so, he thinks that there are some top rate American journalists. He spent four months at The Washington Post in 1985 and is still in awe of Ben Bradlee, its legendary former editor. He also admires Rick Atkinson, Don Oberdorfer and, of course, Bob Woodward, half of the duo that broke the Watergate story that brought down president Richard Nixon. "And The New York Times has some astonishingly good journalists," he says.

One of the most audacious things the FT has done in the past 20 years has been to launch a US edition, taking on The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times in their own backyard. So how did the FT compete?

"The important thing is not to be distracted by what other people are doing," he says. "The FT was more like a special-forces operation. There were not many of us, but we could work undercover and cause a lot of damage."

Mr Barber now oversees 560 editorial staff, including 100 foreign correspondents in places as far apart as Argentina, Dubai and Vietnam.

"I think we had a very good global crisis," he says. "We realised early that it was a global story. China, Dubai, Russian oligarchs, not just a subprime mortgage crisis. We have some very bright people in certain positions. We fit stories into a geopolitical context. And we aim to lead the debate."

I say that's all very well, and I agree that his paper has had a very good crisis, but why didn't it anticipate it? As Queen Elizabeth II asked, why did nobody see it coming? The blue eyes glitter, and he pauses in a rather Pinteresque manner.

"I gave a speech at Yale on this. You can see it online," he says. "There is a certain amount of mea culpa, but look, everybody got carried away with the party and that includes some of the journalists. But some of our reporting and commentary did point to the risks going on, including Martin [Wolf] and Gillian [Tett]. We got bits of the puzzle. Relative to everyone else, I think we did quite well. Of course we missed things. The task of the editor is to see what's coming and not just be reactive. We should probably have kept the story on the front page, rather than having it inhabit the back pages. I think we did about as well as we could have done, although one can always do better. That's my general view: I'm never satisfied."

So what makes a good newspaper editor, apart from a permanent sense of disgruntlement? "You have to give people a sense of direction, you lead," he says. "Finding and retaining talent is crucial. But you can't take it personally when people leave. We are the GE [General Electric] school of Journalism. People leave, so you just say 'see you mate' if they go off to run something else."

Mr Barber's journalistic hero, other than Ben Bradlee, is Harry Evans, a northerner who took over The Sunday Times in London at the age of 32 and edited it for 14 years.

Mr Barber joined the Sunday Times just after Mr Evans moved to The Times. "I missed him by about five weeks" he says ruefully. But he says he learnt two main things from Evans: "First, that you can't beat fine writing. And second, a sense of campaigning."

However, that doesn't mean we can expect a series of campaigns from the FT. "It's more about explanatory journalism. We are not trying to whip up campaigns but taking the time to explain what happened and why or looking at things over the horizon and spotting trends."

When not editing or hobnobbing at Grand Prix, Mr Barber remains a keen sports follower, even though he rarely plays cricket any more. He did play one match this summer against The Economist. "We won," he says gleefully. He does a lot of biking with his wife, in places such as Cambodia and Thailand, and goes skiing every year in Aspen, Colorado. Most of all, he loves rugby and was delighted that the England team had given Australia a drubbing the night before we met.

I had been meaning to buy him breakfast, or at the very least his pot of tea. However, Mr Barber had his Middle East colleagues waiting patiently for him while we chatted, so I skipped off quickly, unintentionally stiffing him with the bill. Next time, perhaps I can have lunch with the FT, or at least play beach cricket with him.

rwright@thenational.ae