Interviews – Media – Gerard Baker

Gerard Baker is the Financial Times‘ bureau chief in Washington, where he lives with his wife and three daughters in American University Park. The combination of his exhaustive research and lucid style has given him an enviable reputation as an economic expert on both sides of the Atlantic. We caught up with him in the middle of a hectic schedule

How did you break into the media?
When I left university, I worked for the Bank of England and then elsewhere in the City as an economist. I was not hugely enthusiastic about the City in general to be honest and I applied speculatively to London Weekend Television. They used to advertise for people with non-journalism experience to work on Weekend World, a current affairs programme. Miraculously, after applying, they took me on as a researcher. I spent over a year there and then moved to the BBC as a producer. I then went on to do various things at the BBC, including (current affairs show) Panorama.

So was the big break going to London Weekend Television?
Undoubtedly. It changed the entire path of life that I have come down. I consider myself very lucky to have been given that chance, otherwise I would probably still be somewhere in the City.

You had a promising editorial career forming at the BBC, working alongside well-known figures such as Peter Jay. Why did you leave that to go into print journalism?
This was certainly the other critical turning point in my career, I suppose. I was offered a job on the Financial Times completely out of the blue and I just took it – almost to my own surprise.

I took it essentially because, in the longer term, it made most sense. The journalism I am most interested in is serious – I don’t mean boring, but stuff that tackles big questions about politics and economics. That’s what has always fascinated me. I like thinking about the things that affect economic trends long term; and the politics and international affairs that influence the economy. I love getting to grips properly with this stuff and the problem at the BBC was that you don’t get so much scope to do that.

I was doing stuff there for Panorama and that would allow you to get under the surface occasionally. But the majority of time was spent doing short sound bites, turned around in a short amount of time. Now that’s very appealing on one front, as things change quickly, and there is an urgency and excitement you get with the news that you do not get in newspapers.

Since I’ve been at the Financial Times, I’ve had the chance to be in Tokyo for a good stint and to get to grips with the economy over there. And now in the US, I’ve had the chance to really get to grips with the economy over here.

Also, I do think that the television industry is a younger person’s job. I saw a lot of older people at the BBC running around, chasing stories and giving themselves heart attacks in that incredibly frenetic environment, when they were in their 50s, and I thought I really don’t want to be doing this when I’m older.

The idea of going into BBC management had never appealed to me and, in terms of my long term career aspirations, the lifestyle in journalism seemed far more appealing. Writing seems more appealing at an older age, I reckon.

People might be forgiven for looking at you and thinking ‘this guy has the best job in the world’. Are there pressures and stresses that one doesn’t see from the outside?
I would say it is a great job and I love it. Firstly, I love America and, from the point of view of writing stories, it is fascinating – being the most powerful country in the world. Secondly, being at the Financial Times, which has a nice reputation, we do get a pretty good seat at the table. We get to see all the relevant people and get a good inside perspective of what is going on because people trust us.

There are two main problems, I suppose, which can be a pain in the neck. Firstly, operating in the US, we have a US edition with US deadlines, but we still have to do a lot of our work for the UK edition with UK deadlines. This can be a nightmare, as we have half a day to write stories which any other journalists have a full day to write.

The other problem is more deep rooted and one which the FT is still grappling with. We are now selling 100,000 copies in the US and the figure is steadily increasing. That’s great for us, as it gives us a much higher profile than the other British papers. But we are having to write for two very different audiences.

Would you say there is one story which you consider to be your best?
I’ve done some enjoyable scoops, but I would say the thing I’m most proud of was a big, big series I did last year for the paper. It was on the new US economy and was a five-part series which ran in December. It involved travelling around the States reporting on different aspects of the economy and trying to come to some firm conclusions about what was real and what was just a part of the bubble.

Has there been any real low point during your career?
Yes. After the BBC when I joined the Financial Times, I got sent straight to Tokyo. I was convinced that I had done the wrong thing. It took me a long time to adapt to Tokyo. I loved Tokyo and Japan, but I found the job at the start very depressing and very dull, and to be quite honest, the people I worked with were pretty limiting – it wasn’t a great environment.

I was very unhappy and very desirous of going back to the BBC. Fortunately, I stuck it out and I’m very glad I did, but at the time, I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.

On a different note, how long do you see yourself continuing as bureau chief and what do you see yourself doing in five or ten years time?
I really don’t know. I mean the normal time for a bureau chief is to do three or four years – I’ve done about two. There are probably three choices.

Firstly, I could stay here if I wanted to and that’s something I’d love to do. One choice I have to make is whether to remain a writer or whether to go into an editorial or management role. At the Financial Times, the next step up is to be based in the London bureau, which manages the FT on a day-to-day basis.

Alternatively, I could go somewhere else – perhaps back in Europe – or I could become a columnist and writer here in the States. I honestly don’t know what I’ll do at present. One can never say that if you’re offered something amazing you won’t move.

What do you think of the Financial Times as a place to work?
It is a fantastic place to work. There is old-fashioned decency amongst the people here. There was a hard-edged feel to the BBC, a bit of a knife in the back quality to it, because it was so frenetic.

I almost never felt that with the Financial Times. It is a collegial sort of place and writers are given tremendous scope to explore issues that really interest them and to do them in detail. There is not the pressure that you get on the other papers to produce a story with a certain angle, with a simple story. There is a lot of very poorly written stuff in the nationals in the UK, because there is so much pressure to produce gratifying copy.

There is not the pressure from the FT management to get exciting stories and that has lead people to accuse us of being the ‘paper that dares to be dull’. What it actually means, though, is that we have the space to actually get things right and that is why we are respected. I see stories in the other papers on things I know about, which I can look at and know is absolute rubbish or hype. We do not have that pressure, we are expected to write the story as we find it. I love that.

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