Lionel Barber talks about President Xi’s visit to the UK in 2015, when he demanded treatment worthy of an Emperor: ‘demanding atonement for sins of a colonial past’.
Lionel Barber was the Editor of the Financial Times during a very turbulent time in world history: crashing financial markets, technology boom, global financial crisis, rise of China, Trump’s weaponisation of trade tariffs and Brexit. It was also a period that witnessed the domination of the technology giants and the battle between print and digital media, including survival in the age of “fake news”. The Powerful and the Damned gives you a ringside view into these events due to his privileged position. A period of extraordinary events and circumstances that led to changes that influenced lives across the globe.
The Financial Times is highly respected and known for its careful research and conservative views. As Editor, Barber had access to the powerful, rich and famous and was regularly meeting influential people in all corners of the world, thereby being privy to a large amount of confidential information.
The book written in the form of excerpts from his diary narrate the stories behind the headlines. It is however more in the form of a memoir. As Barber informs us, “during my editorship, I did not keep a daily diary”. But he did keep “extensive notes of interviews, conversations and encounters”.
It provides a view on how the world works behind the scenes. What you get is a glimpse into the thoughts of people who are shaping the world and thereby impacting our lives. We also get a fascinating insight into the workings of global power brokers in our age. For instance, President Elect Obama’s opinion on Blair, Brown and Cameron. Blair: sizzle and substance. Brown: substance; and Cameron: sizzle.
Reed Hastings, the “brilliant visionary” boss of Netflix, tells him “we actually compete with sleep and we are winning”. Chuck Prince, the CEO of Citigroup sums up Wall Street when he says, “when the music stops in terms of liquidity things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing you’ve got to get up and dance.” You also have an opinion by Mayer, a Google software engineer, who figured “that they—not governments—should determine the rules, preferably by algorithms.” Jeffery Immelet, the CEO of GE while talking about China states, “resource rich countries risk being colonized and Beijing is becoming increasingly protectionist.”
The “steely” Merkel says “that Hillary Clinton’s defeat shows that US political landscape is shifting, profoundly.” A senior Israeli government advisor while discussing the security situation in the Middle East states that “stability is more important than democracy”. The interview with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier results in the Chinese Ambassador to the UK asking him to remove the word “pig” as it “could have implied America”. President Rouhani clearly tells him that “sanctions relief is critical but we will not bow to demands that Iran completely dismantles its nuclear facilities”.
Barber talks about President Xi’s visit to the UK in 2015, when he demanded treatment worthy of an Emperor: “demanding atonement for sins of a colonial past”. He meets Saudi Arabia’s MBS, who “is looking to his place in history” and “appeared to display a ruthlessness”. President Trump talks of China’s help in curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, adding “if China is not going to solve North Korea we will”. The book also makes the reader aware of the chilling presence of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda; who tells Barber that western attempts to impose democracy in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have backfired disastrously: “you think these countries will be democracies again. Not in our lifetimes.”
Barber states that President Trump’s “America first” policy changed the debate over China and brought out in the open what a lot of business establishments were saying in private about Chinese protectionism, lack of a level playing field and intellectual property theft. While there was some nervousness caused by his aggressiveness, “there is a relief that the passivity of the Obama era is over”. Or did US miss China’s rise; as one senior official stated, “we fell asleep”.
The choreography for his interview with Vladimir Putin in 2019 was “worthy of a Bolshoi ballet”. President Putin tells him that “the purpose of government—never to be forgotten by those in power is to create a ‘stable, normal, safe, and predictable life for ordinary people’. Western elites forgot this lesson and lost touch.” “So the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the majority of the population.”
Lionel Barber met Prime Minister Narendra Modi twice, once in 2013 when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat and then in 2019 as Prime Minister. Of the first meeting he writes, Modi was a lot sharper than Rahul Gandhi. As Chief Minister he talked a great deal about farm reform and raising living standards and said “the government’s religion is the nation first. The Holy Bible is the Constitution.” Lionel Barber’s second meeting with Prime Minister Modi is in 2019. His answer to his question about agricultural reforms takes time. Barber comes away from it and records that “he has no doubt regarding his determination to make his country a front rank power”.
Amongst the others he met were Finance Minister Chidambaram in 2006, whom he calls “bumptious”, and the “serene” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who presented a far more nuanced view of the economy; and tells him that “politics is the art of the possible and I have to live with the situation I inherited”. He also had a private conversation with Rahul Gandhi in 2013 and found him “almost overwhelmed by the burden of leading his party.”
The book provides an insightful chronicle of a top editor’s life with access to the movers and shakers. From Putin’s impromptu playing the piano at an embassy dinner party in London, to the drama of the financial collapse and the tumult of Brexit, Barber saw it all first hand. It included Donald Trump’s words to the Financial Times delegation who thank him for subscribing to their paper “That’s Ok, I won, you lost.”
Of course there were times they were caught off guard; even a very prestigious newspaper failed to predict the magnitude and depth of the financial meltdown which included the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, AIG Insurance and Royal Bank of Scotland, the election of Trump, and passing of Brexit.
We also learn an inconvenient truth that while the party lasts, financial institutions are on a roll. But there are times when they lack due diligence as everyone enjoys unprecedented profits, but once the collapse starts it is governments and central bankers who are asked to step in with the taxpayers’ money to cover up this irresponsibility. Or did the crisis reveal that liberalization in financial markets had gone too far, and regulatory controls by central banks were lacking? However, the pandemic has again seen the state being forced to step in and bail out corporates.
Meanwhile, journalism has its own novel challenges. The major threat is trust; quality journalism is not trusted, and in some cases, people believe fake news more than they believe real news. Have newspapers lost their influence and are Facebook Twitter, WhatsApp and other digital giants the “new powers that be”? There is also that fine balance between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know.
Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd) is a retired Armyt veteran.