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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