November 01, 2020
The former FT editor is publishing his diaries, but despite his amazing access to the great and not so great, they are remarkable for what they omit
Lionel Barber: I enjoyed access to thugs and the very rich. It was my job to understand power
On the day he was appointed editor of the Financial Times in 2005, Lionel Barber called Ben Bradlee, the man who turned the Washington Post from, as he puts it, “a provincial also-ran into a national must-read” (Bradlee was the paper’s editor at the time of the Watergate scandal). Did his mentor, he wondered, have any advice for him? Pleasingly, he did. Even more pleasingly, this advice sounded as if it had come straight from a movie script. First, Bradlee said, Barber should be sure to “walk the floor”, in other words, to remain visible to the troops. Second, he should remember that nothing lasts for ever. “The day you finish as editor, that’s when you find out who your real Friends are,” he told Barber, sounding not unlike Jason Robards, who played Bradlee in All the President’s Men.
Was he right about this? Fifteen years on, Barber is at last in a position to know, having stood down as editor in January following what he describes in his about-to-be-published diaries as “three terms” in the Job (by his own admission, Barber is obsessed by power and its processes and at moments he starts to sound weirdly presidential himself). He smiles. “He was partly right,” he says. “Mostly, people do call back. But just not as quickly.” And has he, in the months since, been through a grieving process? Such a job, glamorous and important, must have been hard to give up. “No, no, absolutely not. I had done what I needed to do. The succession had been managed. I’d turned 65. You want to go out on a home run, not with dodgy knees and a bad back.” A banker of his acquaintance once told him that running the FT sounded like being the manager of a rock band, a description that a possibly somewhat flattered Barber thought quite accurate. Now, though, the touring years are over. We meet at his home in suburban south London, a realm of bird tables and Ocado deliveries. No more jetlag. No more starry encounters with the rich and famous. No more creative differences with the editor of How to Spend It.
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