A no-holds-barred diary of life behind the headlines of Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times for the tech boom, the global financial crisis, the rise of China, Brexit, and mainstream media's fight for survival in the age of fake news.
As an advertisement for himself, in other words, Barber’s publication of his diaries in what seems a heavily edited and revised form, is, for the first 100 pages or so, rather counter-productive. A reader uninterested in the newspaper business would not guess that this is the man who raised the FT’s journalistic standards, made it a global brand, navigated its transition into the digital world, attracted a million paying readers and steered it through a takeover by the Japanese media group Nikkei ... The true substance of this book is his disillusionment, not just with the PR merchant, but with the feral capitalism that created the banking crash, pointless austerity and a profound crisis of democracy ... The drama inherent in Barber’s position lies in the irresolvable tension between closeness to power and journalistic objectivity.
The fact that The Powerful and the Damned is self-serving and egotistical doesn’t mean that it is not an enjoyable book, at times quite delicious ... The book is a memoir of Mr. Barber’s time as boss, and like many English editors of his generation, he is rarely unassuming ... From an amusing (but inescapable) perspective, this could be said to be a book about Mr. Barber’s nonstop hobnobbing ... a kinder way to describe him would be as a world-class schmoozer ... Mr. Barber is no stylist. His writing, often jaunty, is seldom elegant ... The most attractive parts of The Powerful and the Damned —apart from the recherché gossip—are those where Mr. Barber professes guilt for not doing as well as he should have done as an editor ... A braggart he may be, and unquestionably in love with himself, but he’s never delusional.
There are some cinematic touches to Barber’s memoir of his long reign as FT editor from October 2005 to January 2020. This is true of his own self-portrait (gun-slinging journalistic enforcer in the Evans and Bradlee tradition, friend to the powerful, nemesis to the damned). It spills into his portrayal of the important people (many of them friends) he met while occupying the editor’s chair — the US treasury secretary who is ‘one tough hombre’, the financial masters of the universe with ‘matinee idol’ good looks, assorted despots and bureaucrats. That is a shame, because Barber has a good story to tell, and one that would have been better told without the swagger. In fact he has several good stories ... it does contain a smattering of funny stories ... For those who care about serious matters such as press freedom and the viability of old media in the age of the smartphone, the book contains food for thought ... Now all Barber has to worry about is life without constant privileged access to the powerful.