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18 November 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 1:49pm

Lionel Barber: “The issue for me was, can I ever be as good as my father?”

The former Financial Times editor on Brexit, learning from his father, and the crisis of liberalism. 

By Sophie McBain

On 3 November 2005, when Lionel Barber was on his way to announce he was taking over as editor of the Financial Times, a veteran FT reporter entered the lift he was in and remarked, “with stunning incuriosity”, how unusual it was to spot the paper’s proprietor, its CEO and its US managing editor together. Barber made a mental note: the reporter was changing jobs. “Leadership is occasionally being ruthless,” he told me, when we met recently at his home in south London. “I did not want to be loved, I wanted to be respected… but I wasn’t ruthless every day of the week. That’s Mao,” he added, with an impish smile. “We don’t do Mao at the FT.”

In many ways, Barber succeeded: former colleagues described him to me as someone who inspired little affection but considerable (if occasionally grudging) admiration for shepherding the paper into the internet age and revitalising its investigative reporting.

When he took office, the FT had lost £60m in the previous three years, as advertising revenues and circulation declined. Barber restructured the newsroom to focus on digital journalism and was among the first editors to implement an online paywall. He positioned the FT as a global newspaper with a strong business focus. In April 2019, the FT, which the Japanese company Nikkei bought in 2015 for £844m, reported it had reached one million paying subscribers. A few months later, Barber announced he was standing down as editor. “You want to go out on a home run,” he said.

Seven weeks after Barber left the FT, the UK went into lockdown. The pandemic has “turbocharged change”, Barber said – including, one imagines, to his life post-FT, as an editor known to enjoy regular international reporting trips and high-power networking events then found himself stuck at home.

But Barber emphasised that he had no regrets. “You can’t go anywhere, you can’t talk to people in the same way, you can’t travel… and then you have to produce the thing remotely. It’s incredible. Am I glad not to be doing that? Yeah.”

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He spent some of lockdown compiling The Powerful and the Damned, his diaries of 14 years in the top job, spanning the dizzying pre-crash boom years in the City of London, to the upheaval of Brexit in 2016 and its chaotic aftermath.

Barber described the paper’s stance on Brexit as “the biggest mistake” of his editorship. The editorial pages were ardently in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, and the vote to leave took the FT by surprise. “Part of the FT’s success was to be the paper of globalisation and that’s what I corralled as a message… but we took our eye a bit off Britain. We were cosmopolitan and metropolitan, and we didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on. We were not alone in that, but it was wrong,” he said.

The paper was “too rational, we just looked at [Brexit] as an economic proposition”, and it failed to understand the damage inflicted by austerity cuts or the impact of immigration. “We just tend to take the view: ‘freedom of movement, it’s good. It’s producing economic growth.’ And we didn’t pay sufficient attention to what was happening or what local communities thought.”

[see also: The US media has repaid Donald Trump for four years of insults]

In his diaries, Barber records that in early 2017 the Brexit secretary David Davis pointed to the rise in populism and anti-elite resentment in the wake of the financial crisis, and told him: “You people are responsible for Brexit and Trump!” “What he meant, and where I have a grain of sympathy… is if you had been a bit more in touch with your country and the public you might have seen what was coming,” Barber told me.

In response to the referendum result, he boosted the paper’s public policy team and Scotland coverage, and said he pushed harder for its political correspondents to report beyond Westminster. He described the paper as having suffered a “failure of imagination”, a diagnosis that raises the question: how do you fix such an abstract problem?

For Barber, the answer is journalistic curiosity. “If you’re not curious, if you just go in and think you know what’s going on, you’re never going to spot the trend.”

Barber, 65, began his journalism education early. His father, who worked for the BBC World Service five days a week and at the Sunday Times on Saturdays, “adored being a journalist”. Frank Barber left school at 15 and never lost his thick Yorkshire accent, and he never allowed his three sons to forget that they had been granted opportunities he never had.

Magnus Linklater, a former editor of the Scotsman who worked with Frank Barber in the 1970s, described him to me as very “influential” and a “dominating and domineering figure”. “If he ruled the Barber family like he ruled the Sunday Times backbench, he was certainly a formidable influence,” Linklater said.

Lionel Barber described his father as “intolerant, totally unreasonable” and “pretty unforgiving”, but also as a role model. Frank forced his sons to read early and widely – six or seven newspapers arrived on the doorstep each day – and all three won scholarships to Dulwich College, the south London private school also attended by Nigel Farage.

“If you have been editor of the FT for 14 years you might come across as establishment, but actually, you might find this hard to believe, that grates a bit because I didn’t come from particular privilege – it wasn’t working class, but it wasn’t privileged. We had to work very, very hard,” Barber said.

After he graduated from Oxford, where he studied German and modern history, he was hesitant to go into journalism. “The issue for me was, can I ever be as good as my father? And I wasn’t sure.”

In 1978, he was offered a job as a reporter for the Scotsman. His first focus was on how to be “technically really good”. “I was terribly conscious of needing to learn how to write… I had to work at it. I wasn’t then a natural writer,” he told me. It took a few years to feel like he had established a sense of independence – his father “cast a shadow” – but he realised he loved the urgency of business journalism, especially in Scotland during the Thatcher era. “We’d go to places and the managers would be in tears, they’d have laid off hundreds of people. Manufacturing was just imploding,” he said. “There was a lot of human drama, and very interesting stories. And it mattered. Because if business isn’t working, there’s no wealth creation and we’re all diminished severely.”

Three years later, he joined the Sunday Times as a business correspondent. He has worked at the FT, in London, Washington, DC and New York, since 1985.

[see also: Can the BBC survive in an age of fracture?]

Frank Barber died in 1999, when Lionel was serving as the FT’s news editor, but his father was the first person he thought of when he took the top job. “If you get a job like that at 50, and you know how proud your father would have been, and what he did… I had a mandate, I had a chance, I’m going to make the most of it. And if he’s looking down there he will say: ‘Lionel did a good job. He was a good editor.’” Barber’s voice swelled with emotion, but it dropped again as he switched to a Leeds accent: “‘And I would have loved to have had that opportunity.’”

When Barber began his editorship, the prevailing belief was that, in the internet age, “knowledge wants to be free”. “Rubbish!” he says now. “If you want to do serious journalism, you’ve got to have revenues.” On the morning we spoke, the New York Times reported that, of Facebook’s top ten performing posts on 23 October, one was by Fox News, one by CNN and eight were by Dan Bongino, the far-right commentator.

Does it concern Barber that high-quality journalism is often behind a paywall while conspiracy theories and misinformation circulate freely? “There will always be room for National Enquirer-style journalism, whether it’s crazy UFOs or loudmouths or whatever, and social media has accentuated that – true. But I also think people want to have an account of what’s going on in politics or the economy that is trustworthy,” he said. He remained confident in the power and influence of serious investigative journalism, even though – as in the US – large numbers are mistrustful of the mainstream media and the liberal, pluralist values it represents. Donald Trump “manipulated” the media in 2016 and forced publications such as the Washington Post and the New York Times to position themselves as “the anti-Trump”, but Barber thought they were becoming nimbler at covering a president who knows how to dominate and distort the news cycle. “I’m not someone who offers a counsel of despair,” Barber said. “I’m basically an optimist.”

Barber’s diaries are prefaced with a list of dramatis personae: world leaders he has interviewed, financiers and businesspeople he has hosted for lunch at the FT, ambassadors who invited him to parties.

He describes his efforts to penetrate the political and business elite as essential to building the FT’s brand and opening doors for his reporters, who occasionally grumble that Barber was too close to power. Was the Daily Mail’s description of him as a “weapons-grade social climber” fair? I asked. “You know, I was monstered once by the Daily Mail,” he said (the trigger had been accidentally posting on Twitter a private message to a friend about his nomination for a Légion d’honneur). “I was most upset that they called my father a down-table sub, when he was much more than that.”

One of his final and most high-profile political interviews was with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president told Barber that liberalism was obsolete. “Like everything, he has put his finger on something,” Barber told me. “The liberal idea is definitely challenged and he’s playing to a constituency, but not a majority constituency, who have doubts about liberal democracy and have lost some of their confidence… I feel it was important to report on because it should give people pause, that liberal democracy is worth fighting for and we should think about what we’re defending. This is about values and defending those values. In a way, Putin put down the gauntlet. Fine, let’s respond.”

[see also: Devi Sridhar: “The longer the UK delays lockdown, the longer it will last”]

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation