Review: The Powerful and the Dammed. Private Diaries in Turbulent Times, by Lionel Barber

By John Fraser

It wasn’t a bad job, but it had its challenges. Lionel Barber served as FT editor through some turbulent times, and this diary of his experiences from 2005 to 2020 provides fascinating insights into his experiences.

Given the number of encounters he chronicles, he may be criticised for name dropping, but – wow – there was no shortage of names to drop.

Presidents, Prime Ministers, Royalty and an A-list of movers and shakers from the pinnacle of the business world.

It’s not so much who he knows, has met, and has written about, but who he hasn’t. There are annoyingly few gaps.

Lionel may appear from this catalogue of encounters to be a bit full of himself, but very few journalists can boast of having a contacts book like his. It must be worth a small fortune.

I knew Lionel a bit when both of us were doing very different tasks in the Brussels press corpse (pun intended).

We weren’t chums, pursuing different goals. The FT had red (pink?) carpet access to the great and the occasionally good, while my role as a stirrer of shit for assorted British tabloids meant I was invited to few ambassadorial garden parties.

The man from the FT had private sessions with ministers and Commissioners, while I was given the task of escorting a troupe of busty Sun Page-3 beauties into the European Commission press room, with the express intention of annoying the then bogeyman of Brussels Jacques Delors.

However, Lionel was always kind to me. Approachable and helpful, he would occasionally explain some of the intricacies of the Euro-jumble to me, steer me straight, lend a hand.

And with Lionel leading the charge, the FT was rightly regarded as the newspaper of record by Eurocrats and commoners alike.

Unlike the Brussels Daily Telegraph correspondent with whom we both overlapped in Euroland – the repellent Boris Johnson – to whom I took an instant dislike, Lionel struck me as both an excellent journalist and an agreeable person.

I didn’t know him very well, but I liked what I saw. I wish I had got to know him better.

Scroll forward a few years, and Lionel is upgraded to editor of the FT with a major challenge on his hands – steering the ship through the digital revolution – taking over from another Brussels veteran, Andrew Gowers.

This diary of Lionel’s is an ideal lavatory read. Not because of its content but because of its format. Short sections, short snippets, almost all featuring someone most of us have heard of but few have got to meet or are ever likely to.

The book combines insight, humour and tons of anecdotes. Well written, it is an easy and enjoyable read.

Of course, it may be argued that there should have been space for a more thorough and detailed telling of the tales, less flitting and more focus.

I prefer the way he chose to tackle the task, however, making his editorial exploits accessible and digestible.

It speaks volumes for his grasp of strategy, commitment and hard work that he did an impressive job as editor.

An achievement which cannot be underestimated.

While other publications have stumbled and fallen, the FT has survived, because he successfully understood the need to go for quality, in-depth content and to embrace its presence online.

In navigating the transition, Lionel needed grit and a ruthless quality.

And in his journalism, surrounded by powerful corporate and political bullies who were used to getting their way, there were times when he needed to stand firm.

It seems that he almost always succeeded. Clocking up an impressive stash of air miles along the way.

It has been quite a journey and we are lucky to have these chronicles to amuse, entertain and inform us.

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A Pinotage Podcast: Beyerskloof in a Box.

A box wine upgrade

By John Fraser

Typical. I chair a podcast where I rant about brainless lockdown restrictions on booze sales. Then Cyril rushes onto national TV to relax the restrictions.

So ignore that bit.

But do please listen in to our thoughts on an excellent wine in a Woolworths box – the Beyerskloof pinotage.

Wine writer Michael Olivier joins former café owner Duane Newman and former restaurateur Mike Schussler (both now have proper jobs) for our tasting.

Those with intelligence and refinement may listen in by clicking below:

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Do also check out:

We taste a Woolworths white wine in a (leaking) box

The box? I would rather take the money.

by John Fraser

The wine was great, but the post-tasting was a disaster.

Soon after we finished recording a podcast discussion on a premium wine in a box from Woolworths, it became clear my box was not premium. It was crap. It started leaking.

Bear this in mind when you hear the doubts raised in the discussion about the whole concept.

The lovely wine was the Pierre Jourdan Tranquille Blush. The tasters were Michael Olivier, Duane Newman and Mike Schussler.

While you click below to give it a listen, I must head off to Woolworths to get my money back….

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SA treading water on Cyril’s investment drive

Minister Ebrahim Patel. Unmasked at last.

By John Fraser

It won’t be a non-event, but ‘SA Investment Conference 3’ – with a masked hero in the form of our beloved President – will see little fresh flow of dosh into Cyril’s begging bowl.

Through no fault of our government – although I still have my doubts about their bosom buddies in Beijing – the world is a very different place with the Covid-19 epidemic sweeping through global boardrooms.   More cash for a new factory in SA may not be front of mind of many CEOs at the moment.   

Despite this, the Minister for Conferences Ebrahim Patel gave a performance which was more plucky than plucked when this Covid veteran met the media in the flesh today for the first time in many, many months.  Many, many, many, many months.

Ok, there were only about three of we hacks in the room with him, with most following it from their bedrooms, bureaux or brothels – but at least he was there.  I was able to go up to him and shout for a while afterwards about his department’s communications failings.  It felt good.  And we both practiced safe Covid.

His message is that with a cumulative R664bn having been pledged at the previous two conferences, out of a total target to R1.2trillion, we have been ahead of target.  So less pressure this time, and expectations can be lowered without the whole project being derailed.

There will be some fresh pledges this time round, the President can rub elbows with some corporate fat cats.  But the main focus will be on moving previous pledges into actual projects. 

Patel said R170bn of the already-pledged investment is already “flowing through the pipeline”.   The main task this month is to ensure the investment tide does not go out again.    Not allowing all the other precious pledges to vanish down the Presidential plug-hole.

Patel says there have been no cancellations – and we must take him at his word – that the imminent AfCFTA continental clone of the EU will bring wealth and investment opportunities, and that the 2-day Investment Conference will allow SA to show the world that the door is open.  We want your investment.  A lot.

Just wash your hands, wear a mask, and give your cheques a good spray of sanitiser before you hand them over.   

Patel and Cyril will be gratefully, gleefully grinning behind their masks.   We promise.

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Mini budget unpacked

By John Fraser

Join legendary economist Mike Schussler from and tax specialist Duane Newman from Cova Advisory for an expert analysis of the mini-budget.

Watch us on YouTube here.

If you enjoyed this article, do subscribe to ZA Confidential.   It will cost you far less than the mini budget.  In fact, it will cost you nothing as long as you sign up before or during the Apocalypse.