Lionel Barber on his tenure as Financial Times editor, why his paper appeals to millennials, and the correct journalistic response to Trump and Brexit

Graphic by Darrel Frost.

Lionel Barber has been editor of the Financial Times since 2005—a tenure that seems unimaginably long for a modern newspaper editor. In his nearly 15 years at the helm, he has covered the financial crisis of 2008, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump, all amidst the rapid decline of traditional news media. 

During a state visit to Britain by Trump this summer, Barber agreed to sit down with Amber A’Lee Frost, a host of the “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House and a longtime self-identified socialist, who recently wrote of her surprising love of the FT for CJR. The two met in his London office. 

The following is an abridged and edited transcript of that interview.

 

Does it surprise you that in America you have a lot of younger left-wing people canceling their New York Times subscriptions and maybe even sharing between a few of them one subscription to the Financial Times

No. I worked for 10 years in the states. Actually longer, if you count the stint at The Washington Post in ’85. But I was in Washington for nearly six years, spent some time on sabbatical at Berkeley for five months, and then did another four-year stint in New York before taking this job, and I probably go to the states seven times a year. And my daughter happens to work at the Times, my son lives in New York. So I’m familiar with the millennial thinking.

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You were FT Washington correspondent and US editor from ’86 to ’92. And then you were effectively transferred to Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, at the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Was it a conscious decision to follow the trajectory of global economics? 

Yeah, it was. I had a decision to make. My kids had been born in Washington in ’88 and ’90, and I loved it there. [I reported] on the end of the Cold War from Washington, and the Gulf War. But we had a conversation about, Well, are you really saying you’re going to stay in America versus going to Europe, which has completely transformed?

 

America is over.

It had become old and boring.

 

And as the European Union has developed you got to see a lot of new things happen.

Like a single currency, which nobody thought would happen in this country.

 

In your tenure, FT circulation has grown by a lot [recently topping 1,000,000 paying readers], and digital subscribers just skyrocketed [to 650,000]. Not to undermine your skills as an editor, but do you think that that was something to do with the growth of the financial sector? 

When I came here [in concert with others] I said, “We’re under-priced.” So we need to raise prices because you’re creating a premium brand and making a statement. But then it was also useful internally because I could tell the journalist, “Right, we’re having to charge this extra stuff and raise prices, so you gotta create more value.” Very important.

Second, we made a big decision to charge for content. We didn’t go for what was going on in America, which was, “Knowledge wants to be free.” No, it doesn’t. If you’re going to spread knowledge and insight, you’re going to have to charge for it. 

And then the third thing, we had to figure out the business model, because our business model was broken in 2004 and 2005. We needed to figure out how to sell direct to customers, not be disintermediated by these aggregators, and sell direct, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve concentrated on a business audience. Of course, we have others who are not in the financial sector. So we’ve sold to law firms, to accountancy firms, but also colleges, all sorts of businesses. 

And lastly, you can grow if you’ve got a brand, a valuable brand, offering a digital proposition, with no geographical boundaries. So, that’s why we’ve doubled the paid circulation since I’ve been editor.

 

One of the things people joke about in America when they start reading the FT is, “Wow, did you know there are other countries?” The New York Times has bureaus everywhere, but currently we’re really weighed down by following Trump ad nauseum. The Guardian has a mob of op-eds on Brexit. Was there a conscious decision to keep a cool head about major world events?

We’re not immune to the polarization that you see in advanced Western democracies. Populism, you know, the political shock and aftershocks of the financial crisis. And the people have strong views. I mean people in the FT. But that doesn’t affect the news coverage. We have more than a hundred foreign correspondents around the world, and we offer something different. In terms of the American market, we can bring the rest of the world to America, and America to the rest of the world. 

We’ve tried not to be an echo chamber. And you were very perspicacious and insightful in understanding that we don’t have a party-political agenda; we are not party-political. We have certain core beliefs. We do believe in open markets, open minds, but we have other views about responsible capitalism, that it’s not just about shareholder value. And we also are not going to be dominated by one particular politician and what he’s saying every five minutes.

 

As a reporter your job is to hold people to account and ask them difficult questions, and then you have the choice. If it goes nowhere and it’s total propaganda, I’m not going to publish it.

 

The names that come to mind are Edward Luce and Rana Foroohar, who have written about inequality very thoughtfully and have managed to avoid the American line on it, which tends to be very moralist. I think their takes have something to do with the FT understanding that once inequality reaches a certain point, there are major political repercussions. Which I think has also given FT compelling coverage of the far right. For example, you interviewed Bannon in 2018?

Yes. I also defended the principle of this interview. There were one or two people who were not happy here about me doing it. And a couple of them wrote to me and I wrote back, and I said, “This is why I’m doing it.” And with the encouragement of the weekend editor, I wrote an essay, and the words stand: what is the point of the political interview?

[From “Was it Right to Interview Steve Bannon?,” “The primary purpose of an interview of course is unchanged: to elicit information. But interviews are also, in the words of John Birt, the former director-general of the BBC, a chance to “test people’s account”. This could be probing a version of events or a political philosophy. In the case of Steve Bannon, the ex-US navy lieutenant, Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood film producer turned incendiary political strategist, all categories apply.”]

 

Where do you draw the line with an interview subject?

I wouldn’t interview somebody who is advocating violence, or breaking the law. I can list people I’ve interviewed who you might think are off the charts. I have interviewed Paul Kagame in Rwanda. I’ve interviewed [Álvaro] Uribe in Columbia. I have interviewed Putin, not for the FT directly, but at Davos on stage. I mean these are all people who indirectly or directly may be seen to have blood on their hands. In 1990, I interviewed David Duke, who was running for Senate, and behind me was somebody with a very large magnum pistol. But I did it, because he was a candidate, and I questioned him. I asked him about the 1930s and Nazis.

As a reporter your job is to hold people to account and ask them difficult questions, and then you have the choice. If it goes nowhere and it’s total propaganda, I’m not going to publish it. But the idea of de-platforming, to use that terrible word, or somehow political figures are off limits, I don’t really see that.

 

It doesn’t make them go away to not report on them.

They’re present. Bannon was an advisor to Trump, he helped get him elected. And he’s been trying, I don’t think particularly successfully, to spread the right movement  in Europe.

 

At one point in a 2008 interview with The Independent, you said, “My team sets the news agenda for decision-makers in politics, business, and finance around the world. That’s quite an influence.” I think I would have agreed with that more wholeheartedly prior to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. It doesn’t seem that we dictate the terms of debate as much as we thought we did, or maybe just as much as we did at other points. 

What you can do is be an important voice in the debate that’s seen as informed, trusted, it’s reliable in terms of its considered views. It’s an important voice in the debate. Now, two comments. One is, does that mean that we get to determine the outcome? Or should we be trying to determine the outcome? No. We should put our position forward and let’s see in the mix how it comes out.

On Brexit, now here’s where I agree with you. I think that we didn’t clearly have much influence over that. I mean, we got 48 percent. But more important, if I had to criticize, which I do, I look at how we do things. We didn’t sufficiently understand the emotional aspects of that campaign, and the views and fears of segments of this population, particularly about immigration. And we just looked at this through a lens of rational economic debate, and said it doesn’t make sense to vote to leave. Because it’s not a sensible economic decision. Certainly not in the short term. 

We didn’t get it completely wrong because my deputy, Roula Khalaf, had the idea of getting foreign correspondents to come over from Europe [to Britain]. To do some on-the-ground reporting in the Brexit campaign. And guess what? Every single one of them came back and said, “It’s leave.” And we didn’t pick up sufficiently that radio signal. So it was a sobering lesson.

On Trump, I have to say, we were very clear in some of our reporting that he had some considerable popular support, and also Hilary Clinton was a flawed candidate and wasn’t running a particularly good campaign. I wasn’t so surprised.

 

Now, generally, if you want to read about tariffs and trade in America, you’ll find more about it in FT. Is that a conscious decision?

Totally conscious decision. The trade issue for us is absolutely critical. Because that’s where we’ve got comparative advantage. We also can use the global network. We’ve got a number of strong correspondents in China, we’re all over the NAFTA. Trade correspondent today in Washington is one of the most important jobs. 

And it’s also because it’s of direct relevance and impact. Here you are talking about impact, both in terms of what companies are interested in and also how financial markets are reacting. So it’s really critical, and I’ve insisted: I don’t want the noise, I want policy decisions, and I want us to understand what he is doing, and analyze that.

And then also the US and China. Last November I spent two-and-a-half days in Washington and spent serious time seeing people, and came back and did say, This is how I see things. And I’d say we’re close to a new Cold War. We have to understand that Donald Trump has actually changed the terms of the debate on China. So now, how is that coverage going to respond to this?

 

You’re retiring as editor, so are you allowed to make predictions?

I’m retiring, what are you talking about? [Laughs.] As far as I’m concerned, I’m running the shop.

 

In that case, do you have any predictions for Brexit at this point? Everyone appears to have painted themselves into a corner.

I’m not in a position to make any predictions whatsoever. A lot of people have got this wrong. It’s immensely complicated, it’s the most difficult de-merger, if you want to talk about it in those terms, ever. Nobody’s ever left the European Union. It’s our most important trading partner, it was always going to be difficult. I tended to think that March was not necessarily a cliff edge, that this was too difficult and that they’d go for an extension. You can’t make any judgements based on what people are saying, because it’s doubly confused because of the election campaign, in which they are having to take hardline positions. So you know, it’s totally up in the air. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

 

Getting back to the idea of media influence, there has been, in the US at least, kind of liberal hegemony in the media. At least for the very big ones. There’s a big complaint—

What about Fox News?

 

Fox News is the big one on TV but it’s also background noise for the elderly.

A lot of radio and TV stations, they’re not liberal at all.

 

True, okay. Regardless, the argument is that there is a large, liberal-media behemoth. We’re talking about the Times, MSNBC, CNN, that kind of thing. They didn’t seem to do much to corral people towards a political candidate, or away from Trump, and I wonder if maybe we are at the end of something. I mean, it’s a similar thing I think with The Guardian here. There’s a lot of media that pushed back against Corbyn, and it backfired—people really resented it. Do you think that there’s a large number of people—liberals even—who now resent what has been generally considered the liberal media?

I don’t quite buy your proposition. I don’t buy it in America, because I think the post-Fox, post-’90, sort of mid-’90s media landscape started really changing. I can still remember switching on the radio in Wisconsin, and listening to this man I’d never heard of called Rush Limbaugh. I’m thinking, Oh my god, what is this? I’d suggest there’s a lot more Rush Limbaugh since 1990.

 

Sure, the right still runs radio.

I think it’s much more balanced and polarized in terms of what you might call roughly left, right, liberal, conservative, nativist, internationalist, that kind of juxtaposition in America.

 

I believe most people are politically idiosyncratic.

[There is this] notion that the media is incredibly powerful and concentrated power, and can have massive influence. Watergate was a seminal moment for American journalism, or for journalism anywhere. If you were to simplify, you would say two journalists, plus a brave editor and proprietor, destroyed a president. “Oh my goodness, you know that’s what we’ve got, that kind of power?”

And obviously this has changed now, not least because the landscape has both polarized and fragmented. So, if you think of the Times‘s investigation into Donald Trump’s taxes, that was an amazing piece of work. But it had next to zero influence.

When I was in Washington, I’m sure that would have dominated the news. It’s different, there are different filters, they’re more fragmented, this is a fundamental change in the media landscape. 

 

The FT was born in 1888 in the city of London, in a previous era of globalization. London was then a great trading center and we wrote about the markets in the world, beyond London. So that’s our roots, that’s our sort of DNA.

 

I wonder if you think that the idea of fake news has shaken a lot of people’s confidence in the legitimacy of major publications. 

We know now there’s a lot of stuff that is going on where there’s deliberate misinformation, disinformation. Then there’s stuff that is just rumor, all right? That’s not necessarily deliberate but it’s rumor, and mainstream media or others are not filtering. Then there’s just stuff which is actually principled and well-reported, and it’s dismissed by authoritative figures as fake news. Which isn’t right.

For me, for the FT, all I care about is, is our reporting reliable, accurate, believed, acted upon, mentioned, talked about? Because it’s there, it’s real. I’m not so keen to get embroiled in, say, what do I think about [anti-fake news] legislation. I do think that these giant aggregators, Facebook, notably, bear a lot more responsibility for what’s appearing on their platforms.

They make a lot of money out of it, and they need to take more responsibility. 

 

I was also wondering if you had any theories as to whether there’s something specifically British that allows FT to operate the way it does.

The FT was born in 1888 in the city of London, in a previous era of globalization. London was then a great trading center and we wrote about the markets in the world, beyond London. So that’s our roots, that’s our sort of DNA. We are internationalists, globally minded. The second thing is that, we’re British-based, but we’re not British with a capital B. Because we got Americans, we got Australians—

 

Rana Foroohar is from Indiana, my home state.

Yeah, exactly but [Opinion and Analysis Editor] Brooke Masters is American. The previous chief leader writer, who writes the editorials, was Robert Armstrong [who is in New York]. The news editor who has just gone to be in charge of America now, Peter Spiegel, is in Arizona. I mean, we are completely international.

The third thing, is that we have this foreign network and we built that up in the ’70s. A remarkable individual, this Welsh guy, was appointed foreign editor and he persuaded the then-editor to expand the foreign network. This guy was called JDF Jones. Brilliant journalist. And that’s what I inherited, and I’ve tried to build it. We’ve got more foreign correspondents on staff since I became editor. That’s very, very, very rare. I don’t know anybody else who’s managed to do that. And the reason is because that’s our DNA, that’s our sort of special comparative advantage. And linked to that is that these people cooperate, they exchange information. 

 

Op-ed sections have absolutely exploded recently, related to Trump, particularly online. What do you think constitutes a good op-ed?

So, first of all my favorite word is “focus.” The great editor of the FT, the great one who was in the seat for 23 years, Sir Gordon Newton, 1949 to 1972, he said that the FT is a paper that influences the people who make decisions, or influence decisions, around the world in business, finance, and public affairs, words to that effect. Now that’s a beautiful way of summing up what the FT is. That it makes connections, it’s business, finance, and politics.

There’s a certain discipline. We don’t want to overload. My view is less is more, definitely. I’ve always taken that view. And it’s not that I’m being miserly, I just want focus.

And then I want to be anticipating. You need to anticipate some of the trends. And then the last thing I wanted to mention is, and you were very kind in your article to mention this, we push the boundaries a bit on some of our reporting.

 

I am actually going over time, so last one. In America, all we read is that the Mueller report would bring down Trump. I was skeptical. And one of the reasons I was very confident about that is the way it was covered in FT. I do wonder from an editorial sense, how you would separate spectacle from substance.

As far as we were concerned, we wanted to make sure if we did write about the report before it was published, we better make damn sure that we knew roughly some of the stuff that was in it. It was pretty difficult and no story appears in the FT without two independent sources. That’s the iron-clad rule that I insisted on when I took over as editor. That’s the way to avoid mistakes. And then analyze what you wrote, try and understand. So you know, we just deal with the facts. We try not to be distracted by spectacle or speculation.

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This post has been updated to amend an error that suggested Barber was about to step down.

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Amber A’Lee Frost is a freelance writer, columnist for the Baffler, and co-host of the Chapo Trap House podcast. She lives in Brooklyn.