J-POD || Podcast || “Some journalists are too close to power; coopted and corrupted by money. That and the libel laws”|| former ‘Financial Times’ editor Lionel Barber on why the business press in India sucks

Becoming a digital-first operation, and getting readers to pay for content, is the battlecry on every media manager’s lip across the world. But the Financial Times of London has been there and done that, a long time back, without going click-bait.

At the centre of the transformation of the pink newspaper was Lionel Barber, the well-regarded Editor-in-Chief of Financial Times and FT.com till this January.

When he was made the Editor in 2005, FT’s situation was dire. The paper had lost nearly Rs 600 crore in the preceding three years. Advertising had been hammered by the dotcom bust and was down by nearly 50% from the peak of 2000. Circulation was in free fall.

When Barber demitted the corner-office in January 2020 in favour of his deputy Roula Khalaf, FT had become a global multi-channel brand and the byword of innovation, its journalism respected and feared around the world by Presidents and prime ministers, kings and crooks. 

During his 15-year reign, the reporter turned editor got to shoot the breeze with the movers and shakers of the world—Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin—all of which he has distilled into his new book ‘The Powerful and the Damned’ (Penguin).

In a 38-minute episode of J-POD, the podcast on journalists and journalism, Lionel Barber speaks about his two meetings with Narendra Modi, his mantra for journalism turnaround, and what he would have told The Times of India’s owner Samir Jain for scuppering FT’s plans to launch an Indian edition.

If it weren’t for his journalist-father, Frank Barber, who was the “splash sub” under Sir Harold Evans at The Sunday Times, Lionel Barber says he would have been a private detective.

His own title for the book was This Conversation Never Happened.

His book, written in the form of diaries, he says, is “Tina Brown without the sex”.

Lionel Barber also takes five invited questions: from Nikhil Lakshman, Editor-in-Chief of Rediff.com; business investigative journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta; BBC’s former India correspondent Andrew Whitehead; Rajya Sabha member and journalist Kumar Ketkar; and the CEO of the Independent & Public Spirited Media Foundation, Sunil Rajshekhar.

***

Show Notes

  • “Never thought I would be FT editor, as I was not a trained economist. I had lost the race when I was 43.
  • “The job of Editor changed from the time I took over in 2005 to when I demitted office early this year.
  • “Editing can’t be by committee, you have to take the call, because you take the rap.
  • “FT was shut out of India over a trademark dispute. It was protectionism with a capital ‘P’.
  • “Had I met Samir Jain, I would have asked him, ‘What are you afraid of?’
  • “People who think they have been libelled can tie you up in courts for years. And the courts in India just go round and round and round. How can business journalists exist when you are under that kind of pressure?
  • “Some journalists are way too close to power. They have been coopted and corrupted by money. 
  • “A newsroom need not be a happy place for a newspaper to be great.
  • “I don’t care whether I am liked, I just want to be respected.
  • “Knowledge is free is nonsense. Start building the brand around paid content.
  • “Three non-European, non-American gold-standard publications: Nikkei, Australian Financial Review, Business Standard.”

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Check out Lionel Barber‘s newly launched podcast on LBC, What Next?

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