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Fri, 27 November 2020

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Review: The Powerful and the Damned, by Lionel Barber

Review: The Powerful and the Damned, by Lionel Barber

Lionel Barber edited the Financial Times from 2005 to 2019

4 min read

Though pacey, entertaining and readable, Lionel Barber’s misleadingly styled – and frequently anodyne – diaries lack any sense of immediacy or candour

“During my editorship, I did not keep a daily diary,” Lionel Barber explains in the introduction to The Powerful and the Damned, which raises the immediate question of what this book is, given its subtitle: “Private diaries in turbulent times.”

He may regret not having kept one. His time as editor of the Financial Times, from 2005 to 2019, was full of incident, much of it in areas that he was exceptionally well-placed to observe. So this book is structured to read like a diary, but in fact it’s a memoir, assembled after the fact from contemporaneous notes and accompanied by ‘looking back’ commentary. 

It makes for an entertaining read, with plenty of amusing anecdotes, but there are constant reminders of the falseness of the diary format. It is, for instance, hard to imagine that, scribbling his thoughts at the end of a 15-hour workday in 2006, the editor of the Financial Times would bother to explain to himself that Mervyn King was governor of the Bank of England. It also seems unlikely that he would need to remind himself quite so often where he went to university, something that crops up a fair amount for a diary that starts when the author is 50.

More importantly, the value of genuine diaries is that they capture people’s thoughts in the moment, when they don’t know the next page of the story. Memory is fickle, viewing events through the lens of what came later.

It would, for instance, be really interesting to know what impression Fred Goodwin made in early 2006, at the height of his pomp, but it’s impossible to know whether Barber had his view changed by Goodwin’s subsequent fall from grace.

The value of genuine diaries is that they capture people’s thoughts in the moment

Again and again the question of reliability comes up: did Barber really leave the Lehman Brothers event at Davos in 2007 thinking that something “doesn’t feel right” – 18 months before the bank’s collapse? Looking back, he probably believes he did, but this is the problem with memory.

By the time you’re halfway through, the limits of the diary format are showing. The faux-immediacy restricts analysis. The section on the financial crisis is oddly unenlightening, often just quoting columns the FT ran on a particular day. Ahead of the 2015 election, he notes FT unease at Tory European policy, but offers neither insight into the decision to endorse the party or discussion of its wisdom. Often the “looking back” commentary is insipid. On Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, Barber observes: “She was divisive. But she transformed modern Britain and helped end the Cold War. Not a bad legacy.” Thanks for that, AJP Taylor.

Neither is the book candid. Most of Barber’s conversations as editor were off the record. There are no fixed rules about exactly how long such things stay private, but surely it’s at least a couple of decades? This may explain why the chats that Barber reports are largely anodyne. The impression that there’s been some sanitisation is heightened by the inclusion of highly revealing encounters with Jeremy Heywood, whose death removes Barber’s obligation of discretion.

The FT was transformed while Barber was at the helm, and he left it in far better shape than he found it, but perhaps fearing that the mechanics of journalism are a dull read, he tells us little about his day job. This is a missed opportunity, and leaves the undoubtedly false impression that he mainly went to lunches and parties, where slightly famous politicians and business people said mostly the sorts of things they would also say on the record.

The Powerful and The Damned is a pacey and readable run through of an extraordinary period of history and would be a handy guide to the main events of the last 15 years for someone who had somehow missed them. But ultimately a man whose newspaper was often essential reading has produced a book that is the opposite.

 

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