A GQ story from the 1990s …
IT IS EASY to forget the river, in London. So when I was ushered (at an early hour) into the riverside office of the Financial Times – to discuss with the editor a profile of the great financial newspaper – I was startled suddenly to see the Thames running so close and so fast, almost lapping the FT‘s panoramic windows beneath Southwark Bridge.
The editor went in search of coffee. He seemed to be the only person in the building, although now it was almost nine. Outside one could see the brokers and bond dealers, the money managers and the managers of money managers, all trudging forcefully across London Bridge. But newspapers – even the grave Financial Times – keep their own doggedly bohemian hours. They go to bed late, and they get up late too. They like it that way. It is part of the private culture of newspapers, one of the many marks of the special status that British newspapers enjoy.
Some British newspapers have interpreted this special status as a licence to promote the tangled ideas and private feuds of their megalomaniacal proprietors. The FT has followed a different route, and it would not be too much to say that as a result the Financial Times has now become Britain’s archetype of the unsullied quality newspaper. Part of the reason for this is that it is one of the few newspapers where the proprietorship is an uninteresting subject (it has been owned since 1957 by Pearson, a conglomerate of ‘leisure’ and media interests that takes no part in the editorial direction of the paper).
Forty years ago the FT was not even a contender in the serious newspaper stakes, but while other newspapers were shrinking in scope (if not in size), the FT was busy transforming itself in an unprecedented way. It became intelligent, independent, sceptical, liberal, and wide-ranging, all on the unpromising foundation of news about money. With around 350 journalists and probably the biggest foreign news network in the world of any newspaper (The New York Times is the only rival), the FT is also the closest Britain now comes to having an international newspaper. The background values are always those of cautious liberal capitalism, but they remain in the background. The FT grinds no axes, supports no factions, promotes no candidates. It is different.
That, as they say in the financial press, is the upside. There is a downside. By the time that Richard Lambert took over the editorship of the FT last year, it was clear that more than one thing had gone wrong with the newspaper. In the eighties, the FT like so many other companies was propelled by the profitable current. Everyone was making money. But now the current no longer flows. The hard figures are these: in the last financial year pretax profits fell 38% to £23 million. Now, £23 million may sound like a handsome return, but to the stockholder Pearson £23 million sounds shockingly poor. That is only fractionally more than the £22 million the FT was making back in 1986, and in real terms it is considerably less. (It also seems likely that the bulk of even this profit is being contributed by associated FT businesses – conferences, newsletters, and the like – and not by the newspaper itself.) The ratio of profit to investment has fallen even more sharply, deteriorating in the last year by almost 50%. A flagship operation like the FT needs to do much better than this. Indeed, if the newspaper were a separately quoted public company, City analysts would probably be fingering it as juicy takeover target, ripe for the picking.
These figures suggest a difficulty that runs deeper than mere recession. Ten years ago the FT was virtually the monopoly supplier of daily business news. Then one after another the daily broadsheets sprouted business sections: The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, plus the threat from the European edition of The Wall Street Journal. What is more, all these newspapers have grown very much more competitive in the last few years. While money scams of one sort or another are being unravelled on every side, there are more and more journalists all scrambling for the same stories. But the Financial Times does not have the reputation of an aggressive newshound — its distinctive products have always been the judicious comment column, the considered ‘backgrounder’ on unemployment trends, or political demographics, or interest rate policy. Doorstepping the bad guys is no part of the traditional FT culture.
Now that culture is being brutally challenged. The Financial Times is suddenly being forced to compete in a rough and tumble, profitwise newspaper world. The strain has begun to show. Can the FT cope?
* * *
It should never be forgotten that newspaper publishing in Britain is only just emerging from a painful revolution. Ten years ago the managers of newspapers devoted almost all their time and ingenuity to one all-embracing problem: the unions. Now there is no such problem; Fleet Street’s war with the print unions has been irrevocably concluded with the unions scattered and broken. The FT played no glorious part in that campaign – “Murdoch broke through the hedge, and we just followed,” says editor Richard Lambert – but the paper has benefitted as much as any from the new dispensation.
Today, out in the wealthy wastes of docklands the FT owns and runs a brand new printing plant capable of configuring any conceivable shape and size of newspaper. And if you look down into these howling presses (each machine being the size of modest council development), creating perhaps twenty million newspaper pages in the space of few hours, you can sense the hugeness of the power struggle that has been played out between the unions and the proprietors, and the enormity of the unions’ defeat. Nowadays the machine minders – formerly prodigies of bloody-mindedness – are as spritely and eager to please as Butlins redcoats.
After a late night visit to the spangled glass and steel shell that houses this new press, Richard Lambert paused in the car park, turning back to view the building in its full perspective. It stands in a wilderness of cement and temporary by-passes. He said “You know the old system was corrupt. In a way it corrupted everybody. I’m pleased it’s gone.”
This new sort of newspaper publishing – rich in technology, and aggressively professional – is a far cry from the hit or miss style that ruled in the fifties and sixties when the editor Gordon (now Sir Gordon) Newton was building the FT into something better than a stock market house magazine. Newton (who retired in 1972, after 23 years) was the shaping force behind the present day paper, in particular its foreign coverage. “In newspaper terms Newton was a genius, a genius …” says JDF Jones, now the FT‘s arts editor, formerly foreign editor. “Just for example. There came a time when Lord Drogheda – a deeply cultivated man – said to Newton ‘Look, why not have an arts page in the FT?’ And Newton, who you have to realize was a total cultural illiterate, just said ‘Arts? Why not? Let’s have it.'” Newton expanded the FT in ways that were unexpected and inspired; his legacy is that the FT now competes with The Times and the Washington Post, and not the Penny Share Guide.
Newton was also, one gathers, rather scary. “Scary? Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying,” said Richard Lambert. Newton was a master of the strategic tantrum. One of his favoured stunts was to rip a journalist’s copy from the typewriter and tear it up in front of everybody. And Jurek Martin, another former foreign editor, told me “When I was first in Washington, been there about a year, Newton called me up. He said ‘I want you to go and take over in New York.’ Well I was still very much enjoying myself, and I told him I was not sure I wanted to go. I wanted to think about it. He said ‘Do. I’ll give you ten seconds.’ And you knew he meant it.”
After Newton the newspaper settled into a more cautious mode that lasted for a decade and a half. The relationship between the newspaper and the great money machine that is the City of London remained at least comfortable, and sometimes it was cosy. There was a certain commonality of class and educational background between journalist and banker – a journalist might easily leave the FT for a senior banking job (one former editor did so), and find it an easy transition.
Then in the eighties this unitary world broke apart. As one revolution swiftly followed another, the old intimate order was upset: there was the City revolution, the appearance of new (and much more profitable) newspaper technology, and the consequent breaking of the print unions. Like everyone else, the FT has found these changes very stressful — although watching the paper at work today, you might not think that.
Earlier this year I spent several days in the offices of the Financial Times, talking to writers, attending meetings, trying to develop a feel for the way this newspaper looks at the world. I found that it is unlike any other paper.
Anyone who has had dealings with Fleet Street newpapers will be struck by the air of almost unnatural order and brisk efficiency that pervades the Southwark Bridge office. Where, you wonder, is the epic seediness of the Street of Shame? Where are the clouds of fagsmoke and the rivers of booze? Where are the obscene oaths, the tearful secretaries, the hysterical editors? Not at the FT. Here they wear sensible suits, and their breath smells of Evian water. It does not look like a place torn asunder by struggle and stress.
The appearance is quite deceptive. There is a struggle going on at the FT, a challenge to the old and in some ways lazy culture of the past. It’s all to do with news.
When it comes to news the question is, can the FT hack it? David Kynaston, author of a history of the newspaper, says “You have to see this in terms of the FT‘s culture, which is a terribly cautious culture. There used to be an old news editor’s adage there – ‘better get it right tomorrow than get it wrong today.'”
In the last couple of years this has come to seem less of a strength, and more of a problem. There is a long list of stories, business scandals of one sort or another, where the FT was decidedly not in the vanguard of news reporting: the long story of the wrecking of Midland Bank by its top management; Guinness; Blue Arrow and the National Westminster Bank; various insider dealing stories … More recently, and perhaps more seriously, the dimensions of the BCCI collapse at first eluded the FT. “The Wall Street Journal got there first, no question,” said a journalist. “To tell the truth they were way ahead of us. Once we got on to it we blew the Journal out of the water. But okay, we should have been there first.”
Blowing the competition out of the water is becoming a commercial necessity; the FT is now coming head-to-head with general newspapers that draw on an ingrained hard news culture, an aggressive culture. It has to fight on their terms.
The man charged with fighting the good fight is Alain Cass, the FT‘s news editor. (Thumbnail sketch, courtesy of a colleague: “If you went to Central Casting and asked for the heroic newsman who saves the world, they’d send you Alain Cass. The guy is straight out of a movie.”) Cass, in contrast to almost everyone else on the paper, is sprucely informal: Central Casting has supplied blue jeans, although of course they are pressed blue jeans. He is also notably affable, informative and businesslike, which give or take a little is the house style at the FT. He says: “I was given this job to transform our news coverage, to give it a much harder edge. Hitting stories harder, presenting them harder. It is critically important for the FT to do that and to be seen to do that, mixing it with the opposition.” Cass, as one his colleagues said, is messianic about news. He has a good number of disciples on the FT. These are the journalists who want to play the aggressive newspaper game, who want to go out and find that very big story, the one that will once and for all lay down the FT‘s news credentials.
And that is what happened last year, when the FT set off to chase what turned out to be one of the newsworld’s great non-stories, a story that never was.
It all began with Ted Koppel, a presenter for American ABC television who is widely judged to be one of America’s best news journalists. One night last year Koppel invited on to his Nightline show two former employees of the Carter administration. They were the FT‘s New York correspondent Alan Friedman, and Gary Sick. Sick is an influential journalist-investigator-lobbyist of a sort that does not exist in Britain, and that night he had been propounding the theory known as the ‘October Surprise’. Briefly, this alleged that in the last weeks of the Carter presidency, Ronald Reagan’s closest supporters had struck a deal with the Iranian government to the effect that the release of the US embassy hostages would be delayed until after Carter had been defeated, thereby depriving Carter of a last-minute vote winner.
Alan Friedman, as it happened, was interested in the other side of the story, the emerging evidence that the Reagan administration or powers close to it had long been arming Iran’s enemy Iraq, to an extent that was illegal in itself and fraudulent in method. And in the capsized world of covert policies, these two stories on Iran and Iraq were by no means contradictory. Indeed, they went hand in hand – left hand, right hand.
Ted Koppel was interested in Friedman’s ideas, very interested. The ‘October Surprise’ story had already been in the air for a while, and it was obstinately refusing to firm up. But this is a world where if you want to go right, you take a left. Could it be that Friedman’s story, paradoxically, was the hidden entrance that would eventually double back to ‘October Surprise’? Tantalising. This would be the biggest story of them all, bigger even than Watergate. But to follow Friedman’s story, Koppel needed Friedman. The trail ran through complex financial channels, through obscure banks and offshore trusts. Friedman understood such things.
Thanks to supersonic air travel, Ted Koppel and the president of ABC television were able to put some of this to FT editor Richard Lambert the next morning, in person, in the office by the Thames. Lambert and the other journalists in the meeting (Alain Cass, Jurek Martin who was then foreign editor, and deputy editor Ian Hargreaves) were persuaded to embark on what for the FT was a most uncharacteristic investigation. Lambert authorized Alan Friedman and the FT‘s state department specialist in Washington, Lionel Barber, to go ‘off diary’ – that is, to pursue the story full time, in collaboration with ABC. Money was made available. Alain Cass flew immediately to Washington, where he set up a joint unit in the ABC building, a ‘sealed room’ (even inside the FT, the whole operation was to remain highly secretive throughout). Lionel Barber was asked to supervise the FT contribution, to edit the dizzy stories that were in Alan Friedman’s head.
As it turned out, the stories were dizzy enough to catch the FT off balance. Critics of the FT will argue that the newspaper had no idea what it was getting into when it allowed its legitimate story (US links with Iraq) to become tied in with Gary Sick’s fantastical ‘grand unified conspiracy’ that was supposed to link the embassy hostages, Iran-Contra, arms to Iraq, the CIA’s drug and arms running and who knows what else.
Apart from anything else (say the critics), there was a fundamental problem with the sources. These included Ari Ben-Menashe, the Israeli translator who claims – among many other things – to have taken a leading role in the Israeli raid on Entebbe, as well as the attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, all, presumably, in his spare time while the translating work was slack. “You only have to speak to Ben-Menashe for five minutes,” says an experienced American journalist, “and you realize his credibility is zero.” And Ben-Menashe was only the most prominent of an extensive cast of moonshiners who claimed to be able to knit up the greatest scoop of all time.
As the fragmentary stories came out on ABC and in the FT‘s pages, those colleagues who were not in on the secret watched with interest and perplexity. One FT journalist told me “We were being asked to run stories that either didn’t stand up, or else bore no relation to anything else in the paper. And we forgot the golden rule on stories about covert intelligence: when you start to think you understand that world, that’s when you don’t understand it.” And here is a view from inside the American TV news establishment: “We were puzzled. What was the FT doing? They must have found the whole thing intoxicating, maybe got carried away with the excitement. It’s not their usual thing. Many of the stories themselves never really delivered – for example, you should be aware that they were never picked up by the wire services. Too wild.”
At the FT‘s London office, doubts were accumulating. Alain Cass remained solidly behind the investigation, and Ian Hargreaves, the FT‘s young and capable deputy editor was enthusiastic. Editor Richard Lambert was characteristically cautious. But Jurek Martin the foreign editor, a journalist of considerable stature on the paper, had been sceptical from the start, and only grew more so. It was no surprise when Richard Lambert decided enough was enough, and the FT pulled out. Everyone had learned a lot, spent a lot, but achieved little.
Naturally, the FT investigators take a different view. To hear the case for the defence I visited Alan Friedman in New York, where from penthouse height the FT bureau looks down on a denuded and rusty corner of Central Park.
“You want to know what we achieved? Alright. We broke five major – I mean major – news stories. We scooped The Independent, The Washington Post, The Economist, whoever … We uncovered facts that are only now becoming seen as crucial to the rewriting of the history of the Reagan years. We took risks. You think the guys we were dealing with weren’t serious? You try having a loaded gun pressed up against your head in some hotel room in Texas. They were serious. Don’t laugh. I don’t want to live through that again.”
That is Alan Friedman talking. Instead of the pop-eyed conspiracy-monger I had been led to anticipate, Friedman turned out to be mannerly and level-headed, identifiably the FT man complete with a full kit of personal charm – and, it must be added, absolutely unhampered by any false modesty. Clearly Friedman is a capable operator in the jungle of New York finance. But like many investigative journalists he does like to manipulate the conversation, gently, suggesting hidden layers, unspoken dimensions … Finally he added “I’m very proud of what I achieved. And I’m not sure that even the FT realizes the prestige it has gained, internationally.”
Lionel Barber, the other half of the investigative team, made exactly this point. He also says “It’s true, we were learning. But remember, this is an area where others fear to tread, a joint venture with the best news network in the US. I mean, think of the egos, the very highly paid people involved. The fact is that we overcame all those problems. We are all still speaking to each other.”
But it does not take too much reading between the lines to see that the project rapidly sank under the weight of its own contradictions. Lionel Barber says: “You wouldn’t believe the hours we worked. Alan Friedman was putting in 20 hours a day. John Fielding [the ABC producer] was doing the same. I have this final image of Alan sitting in the ABC office, trying to write a feature on the Chase Manhatten merger. He had five phones ringing at once. He had the chairman of Chase Manhatten on one line, Ari Ben-Menashe on another … I said ‘Alan, this is crazy. It’s got to stop.'”
In retrospect, this escapade can be seen as the defining event in the newspaper’s search for a new role in the unforgiving world of hard news gathering. The FT did achieve groundbreaking work on the miserable US appeasement of Iraq (a story which is only now being taken up by the US press), and at least as importantly, the experience equipped the FT to tackle recent money scandals, and tackle them well – Maxwell, Polly Peck, BCCI. But the paper also learned its limits. “My feeling was that we’d got all we could get out of that story,” says Richard Lambert. “What we have to remember is that these amazing and remarkable stories about something or other are all very well, but the thing our readers want to know is, you know … whether Citicorp is going to make it next year.”
In other words, no more going for Watergate.
* * *
The search for the big story ended in a victory for caution. The Financial Times is still a deeply cautious and protective organization. The senior managerial staff are very much the same sort of people who have run the paper for forty years, the caste of impeccably high-minded varsity men who do like to run things.
The editor is a Balliol man. His predecessor was a Balliol man. And the writing staff are predominantly male, middle class, Oxbridge, and as far as I could see (on a day when race riots were tearing open Los Angeles), they are white. Several senior staff – like the editor – have never worked elsewhere. And the FT has a reputation for keeping its correspondents out of the firing line (the literal firing line), for getting them out of scrapes, including the freelances. In journalism, this is now rare. And a measure of any organization is how afraid the staff are of the organization. At the FT they talk candidly, without inhibition. That is even rarer.
So it is not surprising to find that side by side with the new culture of aggressive newshunting, the FT still provides a refuge for a quite different sort of journalist. The arts pages alone offer a uniquely talented troupe of performers: William Packer on painting and sculpture, Max Loppert on highbrow contemporary music, Anthony Thorncroft on the other sort of contemporary music, Colin Amery on architecture, Chris Dunkley on TV, Nigel Andrews on film, Stephen Amidon on fiction … These are writers who at the very minimum know how to write, who make the reams of investigative reporting seem incorrigably dull. (One of the immutable truths of journalism is that most journalists can’t write very well, and investigative reporters can’t write for toffee.)
The arts folk are not the only big guns. The FT also carries rather more than its fair share of the opinion-formers, the tone-setters and general interpreters of reality who infest the higher paid reaches of British journalism. Every week the collected writings of the A-team (Samuel Brittan, Edward Mortimer, Martin Wolf, Malcolm Rutherford, Joe Rogaly, Barry Riley … the list goes on) would fill a small book.
I sat in on a leader writer’s conference to watch some of these names at work. Not long before this the FT had startled some of its readers with a pre-election leader that gave lukewarm support to the Labour Party, and there had followed a somewhat artificial ‘storm’ of controversy, culminating in a jeering feature in The Sun about Richard Lambert and his ‘loadsamoney’ wife. In fact the leader was in the paper’s best tradition of editorial non-alignment, the FT never having identified itself with a political party. Richard Lambert commented “I think the best thing about this whole fuss is that it has shown our proprietors in their best light.”
“Why, what did they say about it?”
“They haven’t mentioned it.”
This recent turbulence may have been the reason why I found the deliberations of the leader writers restrained, not to say cryptic, as they bargained politely with ideas. The river outside was in full flood: as a Thames launch slid past the window, packed with tourists shivering in their unsuitable clothes, deputy editor Ian Hargreaves was hazarding some sweeping statements about contemporary Britain. Joe Rogaly returned a mild rebuke: “Well now, this is getting very deep …”
It can get a little more combative than this, in the leader conference, so they say. Issues like Europe or a war have revealed strongly held personal views (there was a strong anti-war faction during the Falklands campaign, for example). And on policy matters to do with economy, when the columnist Samuel Brittan is called down from the upper floor, there can be a vigorous exchange of opinions. My informant says “Sam gets incredibly upset – angry – he’s a much better writer than arguer. Then it all comes down to controlling Sam and getting out of the room …”
When you do leave the editor’s office and step into the broad newsroom, you get an impression of how much the paper is loosening up when it comes to who it recruits. The FT is beginning to draw staff from other professions or other publishers (a random selection: Bronwen Maddox who dragged Maxwell’s finances into the daylight, was a stockbroking analyst; Peter Martin, finance editor, used to run the Economist Intelligence Unit; Lucy Kellaway, management editor, was in banking; even Alain Cass once worked for the Daily Express). This means more meritocracy, pay according to achievement (now there are four bands). The FT pays well, especially for those who joined in the 1980s or earlier. But nowadays you have to earn it. Under Richard Lambert there has been a considerable amount of internal flow in appointments, a sidelining of old hands (“Very few people actually get sacked. The phrase is ‘given a job in commodities’.”)
All this means more stress in a stressful world. As it happens, the FT has already learned that stress can do strange things to people. In fact it was stress that very nearly undid the Financial Times altogether.
It began in the late eighties, when the FT moved from Bracken House in the City, a handsome building where the newspaper worked in cramped squalor, to its new riverside office on Southwark Bridge. The new building has no discernable architectural merit, but it is crisp, clean, spacious and smoke-free. At roughly this time the FT threw away the typewriters, and installed an extremely complex screen-based information processing system. At first the editors feared that the system might crash, but apart from the one occasion when it did just that, on budget day (“It was like watching the sinking of the Titanic” said Alain Cass, the news editor), the machinery has performed excellently. It was the human system that crashed.
A journalist who has been on the paper for most of the last ten years described it like this: “First there were a couple of complaints, strange pains, paralysis. Then there were a couple more. And then there was an avalanche. It became the only subject of conversation. For a time it seemed as if the paper might actually come to a stop.”
The Financial Times was suffering from repetitive strain injury, universally known as RSI. This is a mysterious syndrome with multiple causes, including the use of fast keyboards, and effects that can range from mild and temporary to catastrophic and permanent. It has also been the cause of deep and bitter division at the newspaper. Since most people there hold passionately entrenched views on RSI, I went in search of a non-partisan opinion, from a consultant rheumatologist: “Basically, nobody understands this fully. Syndromes like RSI come in epidemics, usually in closed cultures, usually places where there is a lot of stress. Hospitals get them. There is certainly a basic strain injury – we’ve always known that repetitive actions can be damaging; people who have to count money get it – but there can be an element of hysterical escalation too. There is no remedy, as such. All you can do is to break up the work pattern.”
It is not easy for the outsider to grasp just how disruptive the RSI epidemic has been. As a symptom it reflected the stress of leaving behind the consensual world to which the newspaper had become accustomed. But the epidemic also became a cause: many journalists see it as an instrument that has been used to bring a harsher note into the culture of the FT.
By early this year the core of RSI sufferers was reduced to about thirty. Then came the news that many journalists found unbelievable. Nine of the thirty had been selected for involuntary redundancy. These nine included some very senior writers – Stuart Fleming, for example, the former chief Washington correspondent, and Bridget Bloom, the most senior woman on the paper. In circumstances of high drama Richard Lambert announced this in the main newsroom, and there followed the unprecedented scene of the editor of the FT being roundly denounced by some of his senior journalists, in front of the entire London staff. “Richard is still a respected editor,” one journalist told me, “but this scene was terrible, an embarrassment, a fiasco. He was totally unprepared – and very shaken.”
While it is fair to say that there are a good number of journalists who think the settlement was just, there are a larger number who don’t. A sample of the latter: “At the very least it leaves a nasty taste. A definite feeling of a new antagonism between ‘us’ and ‘the management’ – I mean Lambert, Hargreaves [Ian Hargreaves the deputy editor], and the other managers. And a definite feeling of Pearson looking over their shoulders.”
Richard Lambert, the editor who carried the weight of this decision, is not an obvious candidate for the role of tough executive. He is 48 and grey-haired, although it is the sort of grey that suggests tireless intellection rather than premature ageing. He speaks in the stop-start rhythm of the reformed stutterer. A close colleague says “He’s a nice man. Quiet, but charismatic. Lots of us used to walk around copying his style – the shirt hanging out, buttons missing. He seems quite boyish. And he’s very bright.”
Well, I guess you have to be bright to edit the FT. But as I discovered one night as we drove out to the printing plant and talked about the paper, Lambert is also a contender for the Furry Dice Prize for Worst Driver in the Developed World. The interview tapes run something like this: “Yes, financially … Oh, piss off! … Sorry, sorry … Now where were we? … Damn it … Where are we, by the way? Any idea? I get a bit lost.” But to talk about RSI he stopped the car. His comments give a flavour of the turmoil the newspaper has undergone.
“I’m not ashamed. It’s bitter that it fell on the FT — because our working conditions are better than most newspapers — but it did. What happened this year [ie, the decision to sack] was the most difficult decision of all for me, difficult … searing. Because they are people I’ve worked with and respected. I’ve replayed this eight thousand times in my mind, and I guess if I had to do it again, I would, but with a better understanding of people’s expectations and hopes. When the staff found out that people were going to be asked to leave, which had never before happened on the FT, it came as a terrible shock, unimaginable … But we had to grasp a very difficult and painful problem. And we must make sure we have the skills on hand to make sure that we never have another outbreak. I’m absolutely confident that we won’t.”
* * *
You cannot, of course, run a newspaper without pressure of some kind. Pressure is what news and newspapers are all about. And certainly, the atmosphere in a busy newsroom is not quite like anything else. I had happened to ask Alan Friedman what it was like to work at the FT: “It’s fun. Actually. It’s very intellectually stimulating.” I also asked someone else, not so senior. He said: “What do I feel when I come in the office? Fear. Fear of RSI. Fear of my face not fitting. Fear of not getting the story, not pushing hard enough.”
After a long day it was time to take some air. I clicked through the security turnstile. Outside you can stand close to the river, in the ragged country between Southwark Bridge and London Bridge.
I found that the twentieth century river had dwindled to a low tide. There were ancient timbers rotting in the mud, revealing the pattern of those forgotten wharves that once made London rich. And everywhere there were waterlogged red bricks, worn smooth by the rocking of the tidal Thames.
* * *
Postscript: of all the features I wrote for GQ magazine, this profile of the Financial Times newspaper somehow seems the oldest. One reason is that in its original form it was nearly 6,000 words long – I can’t imagine the editor of a British glossy mag commissioning such a lengthy feature today. Another reason is that the newspaper business has changed utterly. For one thing the profit and loss figures mentioned here now seem paltry. And when this profile was written the great traumatic de-unionization of the business had only quite recently taken place, while the digital revolution which has blown the economics of the newspaper business to smithereens had barely begun: journalists had learned to use computers but the internet was a only rumour. Most of all, truth and meaning were different back then. If it appeared in the FT, even your angry racist uncle recognised it was true. The fake news machine had barely begun to turn.
Today some of the dramatis personae of this profile are still at the FT (Lionel Barber is now editor, for example), but many are gone and some are dead. And some have moved on, in surprising ways – just try Googling Alan Friedman. And who, I wonder, would have guessed that the diffident, soft-spoken graduate trainee I interviewed would go on to become the one-time bruiser-in-chief of British politics (name: Ed Balls)?