The Big Ones Get Paid: Lionel Barber's budget-busting final paypacket from the FT says a lot about media inequality

... don't the wars come easy and don't the peace come hard?

In 1992, after 16 years away from making albums when she raised her son and worked on Sesame Street, the singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte Marie who had released a series of striking records from the mid-60s through to the late-70s came back with Coincidence and Likely Stories.

My mum had a copy of the album and, with hindsight, I realise that the opening track ‘The Big Ones Get Away’ has had a big influence on the way I see the world. Long before I made it through Marx, the simple castigation of Sainte Marie’s lines convinced me of the inequality that runs like a ribbon through society:

I just got back from town
Where the bribes are paid
Honey, they turned my offer down
They say the deal's already made
So now I gotta stand and watch
While it all comes down
And the buzzards and the hawks
And the judges and the mob
Circle round

Now, don’t ask me why but when I read this week’s story about the £1.9 million payout to its former editor, Lionel Barber, that led journalists on the Financial Times (FT) to walk away from the negotiating table in pay talks, Sainte Marie’s song starting looping in my mind again. In journalism, there is a huge disparity between the pay packets of the stars and top editors and the hacks who harvest headlines in the content farms.

His name-dropping self-assessment for Press Gazette — which mentions chats with Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Howard Stringer as well as quoting Benjamin Franklin — is generous about those who helped him put the FT on a stronger footing during his editorship. However, Barber, who has published his diaries (The Powerful And The Damned) and reinvented himself as a podcaster, is a man of not insignificant ego. It’s not surprising; newspaper editors are given huge credit for their ‘vision’ when their triumphs are the product of team efforts and, very often, happen despite their management style rather than because of it.

Barber comes over in interviews as a man who saw himself as much as the dashing president of the Financial Times as its editor. As Rachel Cooke noted in a Guardian profile tied to the publication of The Powerful And The Damned, he enjoyed his proximity to the rich and powerful, and his diaries keep schtum about the details of hobnobbing with them:

…when, for instance, he goes to the Camerons’ London home for dinner in 2008, he tells us nothing at all about it, not even the colour of Sam’s curtains, perhaps because he’s too busy “pouting” at having been told that Dave would rather not discuss British politics. Two years later, he mentions that he has lunched at San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge with the “flame-haired” Rebekah Brooks, then the editor of the Sun and now the woman who runs Rupert Murdoch’s British operation. But he does not care to reveal what they might have discussed, nor even what impression she made on him.

If Sasha Swire, the former Tory MP’s wife who recently published her diaries, was an unstoppable fountain of gossip, splashing the scandal all over, Barber is more of a dripping tap: a drop will come your way in the end, but in the meantime you’ll just have to listen patiently to his thoughts on such things as Davos (where “even newspaper editors are assigned rooms… with what appear to be moulded plastic showers”) and M&S underwear (“in my experience, always reliable”).

Barber, who told Cooke that he went to bed on the night of the Brexit referendum with a bourbon on the rocks, feeling “relatively relaxed”, headed to the Glastonbury festival with his wife to get over the ‘shock’ of the result. They were guests of Roland Rudd, the enormously wealthy PR man who bankrolled the People’s Vote campaign and is the brother of the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd.

Perhaps things like the cosy Glastonbury trip, coupled with his penchant for attending chi-chi dinners — such as the one held by Evgeny Lebedev (the Evening Standard owner since elevated to the Lords by a grateful Boris Johnson) in honour of that great defender of press freedom Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman — contribute to his ease with the establishment and abject unwillingness to say anything controversial about them. The need to book high-profile guests for his podcast may also be a factor.

Barber proudly called himself an editor/reporter in his encounter with Cooke and it’s true that in his 14-year run at the head of the FT, he interviewed big names including Vladimir Putin, Martin Amis, Barack Obama and Ai Weiwei. That’s an editor’s prerogative: They get to do the ‘Hollywood’ stuff, the starry chats with people almost anyone would like to meet. When I was at Q, the chats with Madonna, U2, Liam/Noel Gallagher etc. were always up for the editor’s first refusal.

Jim Hacker’s rundown of who reads each of the newspapers from Yes, Minister still holds 33 years later:

I know exactly who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country, and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Barber spent 14 years as the editor of the paper for the people who own the country and, in doing so, got extremely close to them and their friends who run other countries. It is almost inevitable. Over time a newspaper editor comes to look like the paper they edit like dog owners sometimes metamorphose to resemble their pets. So it is that Paul Dacre looked ever more troll-like with every passing year leading The Daily Mail and Barber became grander and grander through proximity to power.

The final £1.9 million payment made to Barber included a £500,000 ‘loss of office’ payment and £10,000 for his pension scheme. That’s another one of those cushty benefits a senior newspaper editor or star columnist can get included in their contract. A more junior staff member who ‘loses their office’ is usually shit out of luck, with redundancy pay at best meagre and often non-existent. Is it any surprise that FT journalists who have been squeezed in recent times are angry?

The FT’s National Union of Journalists chapel — who Barber snarked about in his exit piece for Press Gazette — suspended pay negotiations when it became aware of the former editor’s exit package and has called for “full transparency about all senior executive pay and performance targets”. FT employees anonymously expressing their frustration with the situation to The Guardian talked of “total fury that this has happened” and called Barber’s package “gobsmacking, considering how tightly more junior people are being squeezed now”.

It’s not gobsmacking to me. If you look at ads published in recent years for jobs described as requiring “a senior editor” or an “experienced journalist”, you’ll find many offer pay that is barely above the average salary, suggesting that that experienced is not as ‘valued’ as you might expect. Journalism in the UK is almost feudal, with poorly treated serfs at the bottom and a richly-renumerated elite at the top. The gap between them keeps growing.

That’s why Barber receiving such a generous package as he steps away is so angering to the FT staffers who are left behind. Barber hasn’t bounced out of the paper into precarious employment. He’s published his diaries, he’s pushing out his podcast, and he has 14 years as FT editor to parlay into board seats and other plushy paid positions. Add to that his significant pay packet and pension contributions while he was editor and the payoff pill only gets more bitter for everyone else.

Of course, one staffer told the Guardian that Barber “did a brilliant job of turning the FT round and making it profitable in the 14 years of his leadership and was a great editor”, saying that tone of discussion of the pay award when he came up on an internal zoom call was “very much, ‘I’m actually cool with this, he deserved it”.

Every office has boot lickers and they are arguably over-represented at the FT. It’s the journalism equivalent of US voters with average salaries railing against tax rises for multi-millionaires because they might one day benefit from the American daydream.

So when Buffy Sainte Marie sings in my head, I’m thinking of the ‘big ones’ in journalism who get paid, who cosy up next to the corrupt and the killers, and justify that as Barber has by saying his “job was to understand power” and that he was “not easily seduced”. They all say that don’t they? No one ever thinks they’re being seduced.

I also happen to think a man who had ultimate responsibility for a supplement called How to Spend It and justifies that by saying, “You can walk and chew gum at the same time. This idea that we’re just there for the elite… the nobles might have done a better job in 1789 if they’d known what was going on in Paris,” might not have been quick enough to dodge the guillotine if he’d been hanging around back then.