The international rescue of the 'Financial Times'

Lionel Barber has his work cut out in restoring the Financial Times to its former prominence, but his outstanding record as both reporter and editor should see him through, says his friend and sparring partner Martin Walker

Ever since he was a child, when he was christened "Franklin" in honour of the American President Roosevelt, he has hated the inevitable shortening to "Frankie". He once asked his dad to explain, and was told: "Roosevelt saved Britain and Europe from fascism and he saved America from the Depression." So he chose Lionel instead.

But Lionel Barber has followed in his father's footsteps as a profound admirer of American culture, and now it is the United States that has secured him one of the top jobs in global journalism. He became the obvious heir to the departed Andrew Gowers, who had made his name by making a success of FT Deutschland, by turning the American edition of the FT into a must-read for the US foreign policy and financial establishment.

Carrying the pink 'un has become almost a fashion statement in Washington, and a handful of big scoops on Disney and the US Securities and Exchange Commission have established serious credibility on Wall Street, even though there are parts of Manhattan where morning delivery is still uncertain. But after the FT broke the story of Google's initial public offering, Wall Street forgives even that.

The US edition has been a success, shifting about a third of the 430,000 copies the FT's various editions sell around the world each day. The US sales rose very quickly from 130,000 to 150,000 a day during the Iraq war, when the paper was evidently giving a more rounded view than the gung-ho reportage of most of the American press, and it has more than kept the new readers. Its Saturday paper is so good that the admiring but rather worried Wall Street Journal decided it had better launch a Saturday edition of its own.

So, by comparison with Britain, where circulation has plunged disastrously from 160,000 at the height of the dot.com boom to 98,000 today, the FT's record under Barber in the US looks very good. He has positioned the paper into a useful and important niche somewhere between The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as the paper of geo-politics and globalisation.

It does more and better international news and analysis than any other paper in the US, and is the only one to take the EU really seriously. In an age when US investment houses are becoming almost as interested in Jean-Claude Trichet at the European Central Bank as they are in Alan Greenspan, this is a real asset. Barber's FT has focused far more closely on the global economy than the Journal, thanks in part to the columnist Martin Wolf, who has achieved guru status in US financial circles.

But the FT remains some way behind the Journal in its coverage of the US economy and Wall Street, and this reflects Barber's own passion for politics and international affairs. We are old chums and competitors in Washington, and briefly in Brussels, and I reckoned him the most formidable competition of all.

He beat me roundly on a couple of stories. One was ferreting out the real identity of the Russian scholar (the late Martin Malia of Berkeley) who had written a briefly famous anonymous essay on the Soviet implosion in Foreign Affairs. Everyone in Washington with an interest in Russia (and in those days that meant most serious people, including the young Condi Rice, just installed as a Russian expert at the National Security Council) was playing the guessing game. But Barber nailed it.

Then the first Bush administration got worried about the negotiations in Europe over the Maastricht Treaty and a common foreign and security policy for the Europeans, and a fairly senior US official wrote a rather stiff warning note to the Nato allies saying that, if this encroached upon Nato's prerogatives, the US would take a very dim view. Barber got the scoop on what became known as the Bartholomew letter, and won the respect of the State department elite in an enduring way - which was why he was called in to help brief the current President Bush ahead of the latter's first European trip in 2001.

In Brussels, Barber was even better, probably the best single daily reporter who has ever covered the EU - although it helped that the FT had become the house newsletter of the Euro-elite. He achieved this in part because he did not fall into the trap of going native and being seduced into Europhilia by the Commission. But also he spoke good German (which he studied at Oxford) and decent French, and covered the German mission to the EU even more closely than he did the Brits. This paid off.

After one EU summit in the build-up to the launch of the euro, he wrote on the Monday morning a full-page report that was an hour-by-hour, step-by-step account of what 15 heads of government had done, who said what to whom and how it happened. It was an extraordinary and ground-breaking piece of work that even had ambassadors who knew what was going on whistling in surprise, a piece that could only have been done through very high-level sources and access. It could be taken as a text of how to do it in schools of journalism.

That combination of American and European experience has turned Barber into something of a Davos man, an entertaining public speaker on global issues. But he sticks by his friends. He and I both wrote columns for Europe, the magazine of the EU in the US, until the EU Commission closed it. The editor then decided to keep it going himself, and Barber loyally stuck with it, writing columns for free to support an old friend.

He has not exactly been Americanised, even though he now looks that way. The Barber who started out on The Scotsman, and then became one of the FT's best reporters, used to dress like most newshounds. He was just on the respectable side of scruffy - tired suits and wrinkled ties that looked as if they had once replaced a broken fanbelt. Then the PR machine took over. Earlier this year, Barber put himself in the hands of a professional dresser, and wrote a rather engaging piece for the FT about his expensive new look, with coordinated suits and shirts, and heavy silk ties. It wasn't just the look he wanted; he rather enjoys being a guinea pig, and writing something different from the heavyweight commentaries and think-pieces he pens for the FT's op-ed page. A couple of years ago he road-tested a dauntingly costly new travel bag for the paper, and declared himself converted.

He'll need that bag, and his new wardrobe, as he tries to make sense of a far-flung fief that is simultaneously trying to grow in Britain, Europe, the US and Asia, while not quite having the critical mass in any one to rake in the essential advertising. He'll also need rather more skills than those of a relentless reporter to reassure the City that the FT still takes British business seriously, and repair that hole in the UK circulation.

But he is a quick learner, very self-disciplined and now at last a well-groomed and dapper symbol of the way Britain, with the BBC, The Economist and the FT, are coming to dominate global journalism.

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