.
O

ne of the things I miss most from my time in London, aside from exceptional colleagues and friends, is the journalism—the diversity of broadsheet papers from the avowedly left-of-center Guardian to the “Daily Torygraph” (Telegraph, which caters to the right of center), and The Times, the grey lady of England. The ubiquitous newsagents on nearly every corner and even in some of the Tube stations were always a delight—grabbing the paper on the way to work or, even more enjoyably, grabbing the Sunday Times and having a roast and a pint at the local pub.

Sadly, while I am not able to get those with any frequency (except for online) nor visit the pub (thanks to COVID), I can, and indeed do, get my favorite paper—The Financial Times. I am also fortunate enough to have picked up Lionel Barber’s—the FT’s editor from 2005-2015—diaries, The Powerful and the Damned.

The salmon-hued broadsheet is probably one of the finest news sources available, offering deep insights into the markets, major events, and trends, as well as exceptional commentary. Ironically, I became an avid reader of the FT about the time Mr. Barber took over the helm of the paper. I personally enjoy the weekend edition the most, hoping that one day I will find myself having “Lunch with the FT,” which is by far my favorite feature.

On Saturday mornings I wander to my local bookshop and pick up a copy, before making a pancake breakfast and perusing the Arts and Home sections, as well as the How to Spend It insert. How to Spend It is a particular delight (if ridiculously aspirational) as it offers up advice and guidance on gifts, such as a £10,000 art deco-inspired credenza or £50,000 watch. While I adore my friends, I don’t think I will be getting them either this Christmas. I’m very much of that “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” category—at least for now.

The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times | Lionel Barber | WH Allen | November 2020.

An Unexpected Delight

I had not actually set out to review Lionel Barber’s The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times. On seeing the excerpts from the FT’s weekend edition, I was intrigued and added it to my cart on the Waterstones website. Thanks to Brexit and the declining value of the pound, ordering books from London—even with shipping—is about the same as buying them on the high street in the U.S. Yes, yes, I know I should shop locally, and indeed aim to do so when I can, but there are some books that won’t travel across the pond and I’m terribly impatient.

Memoirs or diaries are very subjective. It is all in the eyes of the beholder. Who said what to whom and when, who did what and where—all through the biased eyes of the author. Reviewing such writing is not easy—who am I to say that their recollection is incorrect, or their interpretation of events is inaccurate?

I am also someone who is wary of journalists’ self-aggrandizement. I do admire their work and am thankful for the fourth estate’s role in serving as a bridge between the public. But for every good and great reporter, there are countless others that aspire not to Woodward and Bernstein greatness, but to the lowest common denominator—clickbait, sensational headlines, and virality over everything else. Buzzfeed’s listicles and quizzes, enjoyable though they are, are no substitute for long-form, well-sourced, and deeply insightful journalism.

To Buzzfeed’s credit, there has been a push for that kind of quality reporting, supported by the revenue-generating ads and lighter fare, but the emphasis is clearly on brevity and not depth. This is to say nothing of the exceptionally tiring trend of human-interest puff pieces that seem to dominate the front pages of the major broadsheets. Interesting though these may be, they don’t impart much in the way of information or analysis.

The pressure for profitability, the upending of the traditional newspaper models, the rise of social media and mass journalism, all have, and continue to reshape, what journalism is and what it means. Local newspapers are dying, and quality journalism is sacrificed in the name of views, ad clicks, and snark. Equally, and frankly far too often, the journalists themselves—ever fixated on their own brand—become the stories rather than the subjects they are covering.

Yet, Lionel Barber’s diaries were an unexpected delight to read, offering a fascinating look at not just the newspaper business, but also the countless events that took place during his editorship, and the broader trends they represented. His 14-year tenure was longer than the traditional period for the FT, but serves as a unique guide, if one step removed from the center of the action, for what was an exceptionally tumultuous period.

Modern, Modern History

Towards the end of the book, he finally sits down for a one-on-one interview with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Remarking to Mr. Putin, Mr. Barber notes that he studied modern history, to which Mr. Putin inquires what that is. Mr. Barber quips anything after 300 CE, but ever the KGB officer, Mr. Putin presses, but what does that mean to you? Mr. Barber replies anything after 1989. It is quite the back-and-forth, but one that serves as an interesting point of consideration.

Modern history could well be anything after 1989, or even after 2001 given the significant changes that took place in such a short period of time. Mr. Barber’s diaries, though they start in 2005, offer a fascinating look at an exceptionally dynamic time in which we see the collapse of the international financial system, strains on globalization and the liberal order, and the rise of populism and authoritarianism.

With Mr. Barber, we see the emergence of these trends and the early warning signs and close with their full appearance. Perhaps at no point in “modern history” has the liberal international capitalist order been under such pressure and strain. The post-World War II consensus has fractured; Beijing offers up a seemingly attractive alternative model in authoritarian capitalism; and American global leadership—long assumed—is no longer guaranteed. True, this could well be a passing phase with the departure of President Donald Trump, but the long-term impact of these trends (to say nothing of COVID) very much remains to be seen.

The FT’s review of The Powerful and the Damned was absolutely right in saying that readers should resist the temptation of “the DC read through”—going to the index to find topics of interest and selectively reading only those passages. The value in Mr. Barber’s diaries is not in the individual stories or anecdotes, interesting though they are. Rather, it is in the totality of his writing, the events on which he reported, and the trend lines he elucidates.

The transformation of the FT from a narrow British publication to a digitally oriented, international paper owned by Japan’s Nikkei could easily have been a book unto itself. Mr. Barber drove critical changes to the FT, making its digital frontage the home for “fast” news and its salmon-hued broadsheet the repository for “slow” reporting—the traditional long-form journalism. The paper invested heavily in its digital presence, seeking out more and more subscribers at a time when print media was under increasing pressure. His dual role of journalist-editor put him, perhaps, in a more central position than one seat or the other.

It is here that his interactions with the good and great or the eponymous “powerful and damned” are absolutely fascinating. His interviews with Mohammed bin Salman, Vladimir Putin (who regaled the assembled group with his piano skills), Angela Merkel, and Donald Trump, among others, are riveting for both what was said and what was left unsaid. His parenthetical notes are circumspect and scene-setting, noting where he should have pressed harder or asked a more critical question.

Given The Financial Times’ economic focus, his 14-year tenure as the editor of the FT gave him a front seat to the peak of markets’ irrational exuberance and the global crisis that ensued. His entries for this period are fascinating as he notes where he should have pushed more or perhaps seen the proverbial writing on the wall. The ensuing whiplash of financial houses collapsing, government intervention, and the impact on the general public are perhaps easy to forget now, but a thrilling read thanks to Mr. Barber’s entries.

The bulk of the book, unsurprisingly thanks to simple math, weighs heavily toward the beginning of his editorship from 2005 to 2015. Yet, and not just numerically, there seems to be a greater presence in these years that one wishes would have carried over into the final five years of his leadership. From the Brexit referendum to the election of Donald Trump, and everything in between, there must have been countless conversations and interactions that did not make it into the final chapters. As nerdy as it is to admit, I find the inter-party squabbling of the Tories, Lib-Dems, and Labour Party absolutely fascinating and would have welcomed greater insight from Mr. Barber. One wonders if the paucity of entries in more recent years was not the result of the sheer crush of developments and a concomitant inability to jot down reflections of the day.

Reflections and Tensions

There is an interesting undercurrent of self-awareness from Mr. Barber. He acknowledges the tension between reporting the story and not being the story, of promoting the paper’s editorial line of supporting globalized capitalism, but not being an uncritical cheerleader, and of taking positions in elections and recognizing their consequences. One wonders whether American editors have the same self-awareness or introspection, or whether journalistic impartiality has been abandoned entirely.

The Guardian was unsurprisingly critical of Mr. Barber’s book, noting that there was an inherent contract between the editor and the powerful on whom he reported. In the words of Mr. Fintan O’Toole, “The drama inherent in Barber’s position lies in the irresolvable tension between closeness to power and journalistic objectivity.”

While I do recognize that, it was less of a concern for me in reading The Powerful and the Damned. If one takes this book as it is—the reflections of the editor of a major international newspaper—and looks at the broader trends these entries represent, that “irresolvable tension” is not a concern. Were Mr. Barber not close to those in power or in a position of journalistic influence, there would be nothing to report. Those profiled in this book would not seek him out or seek to engage his paper.

I doubt Mr. Barber will launch a trend of editors writing their diaries and memoirs. There are more than enough pundits and talking heads on the major cable channels publishing their own books, nearly all of which are disposable and forgettable. By virtue of their position and near-ubiquitous television presence, it seems that they think they are experts in all subjects—a mile wide and an inch deep. Here, Mr. Barber strikes a perfect balance. His diaries are reflections of events and his thoughts on them. He takes a necessary step back and offers commentary where appropriate, letting the reader see writing on the wall, in hindsight, of course. While he offers a few broader observations at the end, they are neither overpowering nor underwhelming, merely a delightful after-dinner espresso to accompany what was a delicious meal.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

The Powerful and the Damned

Photo via Unsplash.

November 25, 2020

The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times | Lionel Barber | WH Allen | November 2020.

O

ne of the things I miss most from my time in London, aside from exceptional colleagues and friends, is the journalism—the diversity of broadsheet papers from the avowedly left-of-center Guardian to the “Daily Torygraph” (Telegraph, which caters to the right of center), and The Times, the grey lady of England. The ubiquitous newsagents on nearly every corner and even in some of the Tube stations were always a delight—grabbing the paper on the way to work or, even more enjoyably, grabbing the Sunday Times and having a roast and a pint at the local pub.

Sadly, while I am not able to get those with any frequency (except for online) nor visit the pub (thanks to COVID), I can, and indeed do, get my favorite paper—The Financial Times. I am also fortunate enough to have picked up Lionel Barber’s—the FT’s editor from 2005-2015—diaries, The Powerful and the Damned.

The salmon-hued broadsheet is probably one of the finest news sources available, offering deep insights into the markets, major events, and trends, as well as exceptional commentary. Ironically, I became an avid reader of the FT about the time Mr. Barber took over the helm of the paper. I personally enjoy the weekend edition the most, hoping that one day I will find myself having “Lunch with the FT,” which is by far my favorite feature.

On Saturday mornings I wander to my local bookshop and pick up a copy, before making a pancake breakfast and perusing the Arts and Home sections, as well as the How to Spend It insert. How to Spend It is a particular delight (if ridiculously aspirational) as it offers up advice and guidance on gifts, such as a £10,000 art deco-inspired credenza or £50,000 watch. While I adore my friends, I don’t think I will be getting them either this Christmas. I’m very much of that “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” category—at least for now.

The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times | Lionel Barber | WH Allen | November 2020.

An Unexpected Delight

I had not actually set out to review Lionel Barber’s The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times. On seeing the excerpts from the FT’s weekend edition, I was intrigued and added it to my cart on the Waterstones website. Thanks to Brexit and the declining value of the pound, ordering books from London—even with shipping—is about the same as buying them on the high street in the U.S. Yes, yes, I know I should shop locally, and indeed aim to do so when I can, but there are some books that won’t travel across the pond and I’m terribly impatient.

Memoirs or diaries are very subjective. It is all in the eyes of the beholder. Who said what to whom and when, who did what and where—all through the biased eyes of the author. Reviewing such writing is not easy—who am I to say that their recollection is incorrect, or their interpretation of events is inaccurate?

I am also someone who is wary of journalists’ self-aggrandizement. I do admire their work and am thankful for the fourth estate’s role in serving as a bridge between the public. But for every good and great reporter, there are countless others that aspire not to Woodward and Bernstein greatness, but to the lowest common denominator—clickbait, sensational headlines, and virality over everything else. Buzzfeed’s listicles and quizzes, enjoyable though they are, are no substitute for long-form, well-sourced, and deeply insightful journalism.

To Buzzfeed’s credit, there has been a push for that kind of quality reporting, supported by the revenue-generating ads and lighter fare, but the emphasis is clearly on brevity and not depth. This is to say nothing of the exceptionally tiring trend of human-interest puff pieces that seem to dominate the front pages of the major broadsheets. Interesting though these may be, they don’t impart much in the way of information or analysis.

The pressure for profitability, the upending of the traditional newspaper models, the rise of social media and mass journalism, all have, and continue to reshape, what journalism is and what it means. Local newspapers are dying, and quality journalism is sacrificed in the name of views, ad clicks, and snark. Equally, and frankly far too often, the journalists themselves—ever fixated on their own brand—become the stories rather than the subjects they are covering.

Yet, Lionel Barber’s diaries were an unexpected delight to read, offering a fascinating look at not just the newspaper business, but also the countless events that took place during his editorship, and the broader trends they represented. His 14-year tenure was longer than the traditional period for the FT, but serves as a unique guide, if one step removed from the center of the action, for what was an exceptionally tumultuous period.

Modern, Modern History

Towards the end of the book, he finally sits down for a one-on-one interview with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Remarking to Mr. Putin, Mr. Barber notes that he studied modern history, to which Mr. Putin inquires what that is. Mr. Barber quips anything after 300 CE, but ever the KGB officer, Mr. Putin presses, but what does that mean to you? Mr. Barber replies anything after 1989. It is quite the back-and-forth, but one that serves as an interesting point of consideration.

Modern history could well be anything after 1989, or even after 2001 given the significant changes that took place in such a short period of time. Mr. Barber’s diaries, though they start in 2005, offer a fascinating look at an exceptionally dynamic time in which we see the collapse of the international financial system, strains on globalization and the liberal order, and the rise of populism and authoritarianism.

With Mr. Barber, we see the emergence of these trends and the early warning signs and close with their full appearance. Perhaps at no point in “modern history” has the liberal international capitalist order been under such pressure and strain. The post-World War II consensus has fractured; Beijing offers up a seemingly attractive alternative model in authoritarian capitalism; and American global leadership—long assumed—is no longer guaranteed. True, this could well be a passing phase with the departure of President Donald Trump, but the long-term impact of these trends (to say nothing of COVID) very much remains to be seen.

The FT’s review of The Powerful and the Damned was absolutely right in saying that readers should resist the temptation of “the DC read through”—going to the index to find topics of interest and selectively reading only those passages. The value in Mr. Barber’s diaries is not in the individual stories or anecdotes, interesting though they are. Rather, it is in the totality of his writing, the events on which he reported, and the trend lines he elucidates.

The transformation of the FT from a narrow British publication to a digitally oriented, international paper owned by Japan’s Nikkei could easily have been a book unto itself. Mr. Barber drove critical changes to the FT, making its digital frontage the home for “fast” news and its salmon-hued broadsheet the repository for “slow” reporting—the traditional long-form journalism. The paper invested heavily in its digital presence, seeking out more and more subscribers at a time when print media was under increasing pressure. His dual role of journalist-editor put him, perhaps, in a more central position than one seat or the other.

It is here that his interactions with the good and great or the eponymous “powerful and damned” are absolutely fascinating. His interviews with Mohammed bin Salman, Vladimir Putin (who regaled the assembled group with his piano skills), Angela Merkel, and Donald Trump, among others, are riveting for both what was said and what was left unsaid. His parenthetical notes are circumspect and scene-setting, noting where he should have pressed harder or asked a more critical question.

Given The Financial Times’ economic focus, his 14-year tenure as the editor of the FT gave him a front seat to the peak of markets’ irrational exuberance and the global crisis that ensued. His entries for this period are fascinating as he notes where he should have pushed more or perhaps seen the proverbial writing on the wall. The ensuing whiplash of financial houses collapsing, government intervention, and the impact on the general public are perhaps easy to forget now, but a thrilling read thanks to Mr. Barber’s entries.

The bulk of the book, unsurprisingly thanks to simple math, weighs heavily toward the beginning of his editorship from 2005 to 2015. Yet, and not just numerically, there seems to be a greater presence in these years that one wishes would have carried over into the final five years of his leadership. From the Brexit referendum to the election of Donald Trump, and everything in between, there must have been countless conversations and interactions that did not make it into the final chapters. As nerdy as it is to admit, I find the inter-party squabbling of the Tories, Lib-Dems, and Labour Party absolutely fascinating and would have welcomed greater insight from Mr. Barber. One wonders if the paucity of entries in more recent years was not the result of the sheer crush of developments and a concomitant inability to jot down reflections of the day.

Reflections and Tensions

There is an interesting undercurrent of self-awareness from Mr. Barber. He acknowledges the tension between reporting the story and not being the story, of promoting the paper’s editorial line of supporting globalized capitalism, but not being an uncritical cheerleader, and of taking positions in elections and recognizing their consequences. One wonders whether American editors have the same self-awareness or introspection, or whether journalistic impartiality has been abandoned entirely.

The Guardian was unsurprisingly critical of Mr. Barber’s book, noting that there was an inherent contract between the editor and the powerful on whom he reported. In the words of Mr. Fintan O’Toole, “The drama inherent in Barber’s position lies in the irresolvable tension between closeness to power and journalistic objectivity.”

While I do recognize that, it was less of a concern for me in reading The Powerful and the Damned. If one takes this book as it is—the reflections of the editor of a major international newspaper—and looks at the broader trends these entries represent, that “irresolvable tension” is not a concern. Were Mr. Barber not close to those in power or in a position of journalistic influence, there would be nothing to report. Those profiled in this book would not seek him out or seek to engage his paper.

I doubt Mr. Barber will launch a trend of editors writing their diaries and memoirs. There are more than enough pundits and talking heads on the major cable channels publishing their own books, nearly all of which are disposable and forgettable. By virtue of their position and near-ubiquitous television presence, it seems that they think they are experts in all subjects—a mile wide and an inch deep. Here, Mr. Barber strikes a perfect balance. His diaries are reflections of events and his thoughts on them. He takes a necessary step back and offers commentary where appropriate, letting the reader see writing on the wall, in hindsight, of course. While he offers a few broader observations at the end, they are neither overpowering nor underwhelming, merely a delightful after-dinner espresso to accompany what was a delicious meal.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.