The Powerful And The Damned

Audio Length: 00:53:18

Former Financial Times editor Lionel Barber joins to talk about his new book.

Transcript:

S2: Hello and welcome to the powerful and the damned episode of Slate Money, your guide to the Business and Finance News of the Week. I’m Felix Salmon of Axios. I’m here with Emily Peck of Huff Post. Hello. I’m here with Anna Shamansky of Breakingviews. Hello. And we are here with Lionel Barber, the former editor of the Financial Times. Lionel, welcome. You have a new book out. What is it? Tell us all about it.

S3: Hello, Felix. Good to be with this distinguished group. The book is Private Diaries of My Time as editor, 25 to 20. And it’s up close and personal with people of power in politics, business and finance from Silicon Valley through to Beijing via Moscow, with Putin and some British politicians like David Cameron, one of the biggest failures of the 21st century.

S2: This is one thing we can definitely agree on here. It’s like money is that David Cameron was terrible. We are going to talk a little bit about him and other powerful men and the occasional powerful woman. We’re going to talk about the media and whether it’s important for news organizations to make a profit. We are going to have a whole Slate plus segment about Nick Clegg, who is a UK politician turned Facebook spin doctor. We are going to drop some news about Anna Shamansky. This is coming up at the end of the episode. So stay tuned for a jam packed episode coming up on Slate Money.

S4: This book was really interesting to read as the fun notes of a journalist up close to the seat of power in so many different ways over such a long period. And you got to meet with so many powerful people. Most of them seemed like they were men. And you had these like really close relationships, it seemed like, with some of them. And I was kind of curious how you thought about navigating those relationships as a journalist. Like, on the one hand, you want to be close to these very powerful men out of central banks, David Cameron and the other hand, you want to hold them to account in the pages of the FT every day. So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you tried to navigate that tightrope.

S5: There’s always a bit of a devil’s bargain in dealing with sources, especially when their sources in power. And you’re right that there are a lot of them were men, but there were some very significant women, not least Angela Merkel of Germany, who I interviewed three times in my time as editor. But this unholy bargain, this devil’s bargain I’m referring to really is the trade off between access and capture. And I think my view was always put the reader first. You’re not friends with these people, but having a chance to go up and personal without often any handlers involved gives you a unique insight. So then what you do is zoom in.

S3: I did use that word zoom sorry, that used to zoom in and then you zoom out and then when you write about it, you don’t insist that every word stays. You show it to at least two other people. And I think that then that then begins to work. It’s very important, though, to to see this as a journalist exercise. And I was the editor reporter. It was a self-conscious role.

S2: So I want to ask you about that line, because I think a lot of Americans don’t really understand how closely intertwined these two worlds of media and politics are in the UK. In the US, they really are very separate. You have a large number of journalists and a large number of politicians, and you very rarely find people going back and forth between the two. And while there are certainly some friendships in Washington you don’t have, like there’s this scene in your book where you’re hanging out with Jonathan Ford, who’s your Chief Lee, the writer who used to be my boss and who is talking about whether he’s going to support David Cameron. And there’s this photograph of him and David Cameron and Boris Johnson, you know, college together, will being best friends and that kind of thing. So when you say you’re not friends with these people, like there’s an asterisk there, right?

S5: I’m not sure. There is probably the only person that I felt a real affinity to and I say this in the book as Mario Draghi, who is the president of the European Central Bank, you know, it’s just become Italian PM. And I did respect him enormously. I thought he was doing a really a historical role. And he felt not quite single handedly saved the euro. But if you look at all the other people I interviewed, and I think it’s very important, this is a global book. I mean, Britain plays. I don’t know, 35 percent, maybe 40 percent content in the whole book, but otherwise, you know, I’m in China, I’m in America, I’m in Latin America and Africa with Kagame, I mean, Russia with Putin. And I can assure you, if you talk to them all up or indeed you ask any of my colleagues, you know what, I’m not friends with these people. I’m really not. And I’m understanding that there is a certain tension in the role that you have if you’re spending time or your close proximity. But in the end, you’re a journalist and the readers comes first. And I abided by that principle in 14 years of editorship.

S1: One question I have is how having all of these sources that are obviously very, very, very well positioned could also maybe potentially influence how not just you, but anyone at the party kind of sees sees the world. And I think about this a little bit in terms of the lead up to the financial crisis, because it’s something you definitely cover in the book. And I’m just kind of curious if you think that because of who everyone at the FTC is, kind of who they’re around, did that affect how they saw that period in the lead up?

S5: Now, I think I’ll come to this financial crisis. It’s important. But just to make clear, I think that a bigger mistake or a kind of what you’re talking about, if you like, slightly peripheral vision or you’re not getting the big picture is if you’re so close to the central bankers you look at the world is saving the financial system and you’re on their side, but then you’re not paying sufficient attention to the unintended consequences like asset inflation. And I would say that was an area where your argument, I think, to a degree, holds up. And if you have people like Martin Wolf who are brilliant, mercurial, but also have a kind of central bankers view of the world and I’m close to Draghi, then you could say that that kind of influence was was important. But in the run up to the financial crisis, I don’t think it was like that. I just think that we none of us, including the regulators, got the full picture. We got bits of the puzzle. And we also we did cover the financial risk and leverage. I mentioned Gillian Tett, great work. My self-criticism there would be we did a very good job, but I could have done it more prominently given the market side of that story more prominent.

S2: What about people like Steve Schwarzman, who comes up quite a few times in your book, and you say that you have a very important relationship with him and presumably you talk to him off the record quite frequently. The two big sort of seismic events of the postcrisis tenure in your time as the editor were obviously Brexit and Trump. And what I got from reading the book is a lot of talk, which was relatively chummy with Steve Schwarzman, who was a huge Trump supporter, a lot of talk which was relatively chummy with Dave Cameron, who caused Brexit. And I was wondering to what degree does the sort of F.T. sauce graph of these powerful men who gravitate to the right? To what degree did it give the left a blind spot when it came to these populist tendencies?

S5: Well, I’m not chummy with Cameron, and in fact, I’m highly critical of Cameron. And I didn’t go to Eton and I supported him in the election. No, he supported the party. We didn’t support Cameron. And I have a very low opinion of Cameron. And if you look at the powerful in the Damned as a book, he’s definitely damned thing. He did more damage with the decision to call a referendum than anybody. But we supported his party because, number one, we didn’t want Jeremy Corbyn and his hard left extremism. And number two, we were in favour of the coalition, a Lib Dem conservative coalition. Now, you mentioned Steve Schwarzman. Yes, I used him as a source. I talked to him, but I also told him to fuck off in Davos so I couldn’t have been that chummy. And that’s in the book.

S2: I love that bit of you. You like sitting at one of those? You didn’t mention it? Well, no, but that’s like you. When you tell someone to fuck off, you can only feel that you can really tell them to fuck off. You’re reasonably close.

S5: No way. You don’t know how many times I tell people to fuck off on the phone when I was editor. Anyway, I think you make a mistake. If you think I was too close to these people, I think it’s important. It’s never down to you. As the editor. When I was receiving information, I always shared it with colleagues to see what they thought. And I never instructed people to put stuff on the front page based on what I knew, because there was an iron rule.

S2: Two sources for every story one of the other guys were very critical of in the book is Mark Zuckerberg. There are a lot of CEOs in this book and so moving like maybe a little bit away from the politicians and onto the CEO’s. Obviously, this week we saw Jeff Bezos kick himself upstairs to this kind of unaccountable executive chairman role. There’s a lot of power now embedded in especially tech CEOs, people like a pitch. And I wrote a piece that I feel was talking about how CEOs are increasingly becoming the fourth branch of government. What’s your opinion of the degree to which CEOs are setting the agenda? Is this a good thing? And like, you know, these guys well, would you trust them with, you know, being able to increasingly be in charge of how the world works?

S5: I don’t think that the CEOs have set the agenda in quite the same way that you think in the last four years in America. I think that the president was very influential. He could influence their stock. A lot of them were running scared of him. I think there is a concentration of power in certain sectors and certain sectors of the economy, particularly tech, which is not healthy. And I would worry about that as opposed to setting some kind of corporate agenda. I also think that the consequences of the extraordinary monetary policy over the last 10 years and the asset inflation has benefited the corporate sector a great deal. So I take issue as well with your description of Jeff Bezos. I don’t think he’s kicked himself upstairs at all. I think he swapped seats. I think he’s going to be running the strategy of Amazon as ever before. So to sum up, it’s about concentration of corporate power rather than a concentration of power into the political arena.

S1: I noticed as I was reading that you didn’t seem to have a particularly high opinion of most tech CEOs. And I’m just curious, because you’ve obviously had a long relationship with CEOs in more traditional industries. Do you think that there is a significant difference in this kind of new breed of CEOs and what you think that might also mean for the future of capitalism, which is also something you speak about frequently?

S5: Well, I didn’t write about Jeff Bezos. I mean, as it happens, I have a very high opinion of him as a CEO. I think it’s quite extraordinary what he created at Amazon. I think Mark Zuckerberg is tone deaf. I think that Sundar is still relatively relatively untested. I think what I was describing a bit in the book is how certain people running the tech companies, because where they’ve come from and the Silicon Valley mindset, they’re curiously they’re libertarian. There’s a mixture of their libertarian instincts and tone deafness. They don’t quite understand the consequences or the potential negative consequences of what some of the technological innovations have it sort of innovation to say is good. That’s it. They’re beginning to understand as we see the reregulation or the threat of regulation now to attack partly the concentration of power that they’re having to be a lot more kind of of this world rather than their virtual world.

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