Interview: Lionel Barber at the Cambridge Union

Scarlet Rowe 28 June 2021
Image credit: Lionel Barber

Lionel Barber spoke at the Cambridge Union on the afternoon of the 17th June, and you can find the full talk on the Union’s Youtube page. Before he spoke in the chamber, I had the opportunity to talk to him about his extremely successful career. Before I launch into the content of interviews, I normally sum up the career of the interview; but I think Lionel’s Twitter bio does this quite well already: “Editor of The Financial Times 2005-20. Writer, broadcaster. Chair of the Wincott Foundation. Investor in the New European. Recovering Spurs fan.” From this short bio, it is clear that Lionel is a busy man, and not least for his “recovering Spurs fan” status.

I begin by asking what Lionel’s favourite thing was about being a university student reading German and Modern History at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He responds- in no uncertain terms- “rugby, playing in the Cuppers team was the best experience.” After a brief pause, he adds that “I also enjoyed being taught by my German tutor. He had a wonderful Austrian accent and he taught me a lot about German literature.” It sounds like Lionel’s time at university is something he looks back on fondly, so I ask him if he has any advice for students who are interested in starting a career in journalism today. His first piece of advice is: “be curious, and stay curious. Don’t be cynical. Always have an open mind. If you think you know the story or you know all about it then you won’t be a good reporter or a good journalist. My second piece of advice is find a patch that’s your own, make it your own. And the third, which did not apply to me when I started but now applies to you is to develop multimedia skills. Understand that it’s not just writing- writing is very very important- but if you can code or do broadcasting then you’ll have a better chance.”

Having spent fifteen years editing the Financial Times, Lionel – to state the obvious- has a lot of experience in journalism, so I’m particularly interested in what his favourite thing was about being Editor. He pauses a bit longer before answering this question- possibly because choosing just one thing is a gruelling task for someone who loved their job so much.  He responds, “getting a really really good story that people don’t want printed,” and- crucially- “getting it printed, and knowing that I didn’t have to look over my shoulder. There are examples, the Wirecard exposure, the investigation into the Presidents’ Club.” Choosing just one favourite thing about being Editor is something that Lionel struggles with, as he adds that “working with world-class journalists and building a team and transforming it [The Financial Times] so that we achieved double the readership to more than one million paying readers.” Lionel modestly concludes “so at the root of it, yes, I’m a journalist who loves a big story.”

Doubling the readership of a world class paper is a hard achievement to rival, but I ask Lionel what his best achievement is from his time as Editor just in case. He responds “to have made the Financial Times sustainably profitable and successful on a global scale in both print and digital form,” before adding that “there were others involved in the commercial transformation.” Lionel concludes that “The Financial Times is a Great British success story because while others were failing, we went global. We improved and strengthened the brand, and made it a place where people really wanted to work. It’s a cool place to be.” With a lot of experience to his name, I am wondering if Lionel would change anything about his career. “I’m not somebody who looks back,” he confidently informs me, “the record stands- of course you make the odd mistake. But in the end the most important thing is to learn from it. And honestly- on the big stuff, I did what I did and lived by it.” After this, he comically adds “I hope I don’t sound too arrogant.”

Since stepping down as FT editor after fifteen years in the role in 2020, Lionel has started a podcast called “What’s Next?”. Having not listened to it yet myself, I am interested in hearing what it entails. “If I had to sum it up,” he tells me, “it’s talking to an expert and getting them to reflect on the future and where a certain industry or trend is going, [while] explaining the technology behind it [an industry or trend] and how it’s a force of change. So it’s trying to go a bit deeper and not driven off the news, but with somebody who’s really worth listening to.” While on the topic, I ask Lionel to sum up the podcast in three words, to which he responds “useful, engaging, and informative.”

Lionel has evidently been an influential force in the media industry over the past few decades, and it is unlikely that this will change any time soon. By way of the final question, I want to know if Lionel is hopeful for the future of the media industry. He quickly responds “Definitely. Digital technology has given everybody so many more opportunities to tell stories in different ways. There are no barriers to entry, the distribution of content is vastly accelerated and improved by technology.” Lionel adds that “of course there are some down sides: polarisation, echo chambers, social media. But that’s secondary to what you can do. And it’s a big mistake to be pessimistic about journalism. What people mean by that [by being pessimistic] is that some newspapers may not make it because they’re in the muddled middle. But if you’ve got a strong brand, good journalists, diligent reporting, revised functions such as checking facts, and trustworthy information- then there’s a great future for journalism.”

It’s hard to come by someone with as much experience in journalism as Lionel Barber, and it was certainly informative to meet him. If you are interested in hearing more from him, then his Cambridge Union talk is definitely a good place to start.