Foto: Andrea Artz / DER SPIEGEL

“I Think We Went Too Far” Interview with Financial Times Editor Roula Khalaf

Former foreign correspondent Roula Khalaf has served as the top editor of the Financial Times since 2020. In an interview, she discusses the newspaper's reputation as the bible of capitalism, her efforts to attract more female readers and the publication’s reporting on the massive Wirecard scandal in Germany.
Interview Conducted By Isabell Hülsen

If this were "Lunch with the FT," Roula Khalaf would have chosen her favorite Greek restaurant in Fitzrovia, Meraki, ordered smoked aubergine and beetroot salad and talked about her first year as editor. "Lunch with the FT" is one of the business newspaper's most popular formats. The lunchtime chat about private and business matters appears in every weekend edition. The rule: The guests choose the restaurant, the editors pay, no matter how expensive, and they print the bill as well. Khalaf had Chateaubriand and asparagus with ex-Nissan and Renault boss Carlos Ghosn in Paris. With Hatice Cengiz, the widow of murdered Washington Post reporter Jamal Kashoggi, she had a date in London for mezze and salad. During a lunch with Britain's outgoing intelligence chief, they had sandwiches in his office. In January 2020, Khalaf became the first woman to serve as chief editor of the 133-year-old Financial Times. Born in Lebanon, Khalaf has reported for the FT from Iraq and Syria, managed over 100 correspondents around the world and served as deputy to former editor Lionel Barber for four years. One would have liked to meet Khalaf for lunch. Due to the pandemic, it turns into a video interview.

Aus: DER SPIEGEL 29/2021

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DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Khalaf, you had only been in your new position for eight weeks when the pandemic struck. Has it been a curse or a journalistic blessing?

Khalaf: Both. We were surprised how smoothly the production from home worked, but I miss the buzz of a newsroom. I can't walk the corridors as I like to do, and talk to people I bump into. That probably won't change much until September.

DER SPIEGEL: On the other hand, times of crisis are good times for a business newspaper.

Khalaf: Yes, in terms of numbers, we saw a surge in readers. Brexit was well above our average at page views, and the coronavirus was even higher. In 2020, page views increased by 42 percent, subscription revenues were up 16 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: Which will be a greater blow to the British economy in the medium term: the coronavirus or Brexit?

Khalaf: The full extent of the damage from the European Union exit will only become visible over time. I don’t deny that Brexit could also bring opportunities for the British economy, but they depend on what the government does with the freedom it now has.

DER SPIEGEL: The United Kingdom has already outclassed the EU when it comes to the pace of vaccinations. So, were there positive aspects in Brexit?

Khalaf: I would not take this argument too far. Yes, the government did have a certain freedom and went its own way – it invested a lot of money in vaccines very early on, but even as an EU member we wouldn’t necessarily have had to be part of the EU procurement. The costs of Brexit for the British economy are high, and this is only overshadowed by the pandemic.

DER SPIEGEL: How does Boris Johnson envisage the future of the British economy?

Khalaf: The government has come up with big slogans, but they haven't thought this through thoroughly. Whenever I see people in government, I ask: What is your vision? I still have not heard a convincing answer.

A newspaper delivery person with copies of the Financial Times: "Print has proved surprisingly resilient."

A newspaper delivery person with copies of the Financial Times: "Print has proved surprisingly resilient."

Foto: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg via Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: The pandemic, Brexit and climate change have undermined confidence in the blessings of capitalism and globalization. What does that mean for a newspaper that is considered a bible of capitalism?

Khalaf: I think this is too simplistic. Just because we write about business and finance does not mean that we are blind to the problems of globalization and capitalism. On the contrary. The FT has always seen its role as holding business to account. I don’t think our faith in free markets has been shaken. It’s the excess that we have taken issue with. After the financial crisis, the FT itself helped fuel the debate about the future of capitalism.

DER SPIEGEL: But the FT was among those calling for austerity in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008-2009. That austerity has contributed to the rise of right-wing populism in many European countries.

Khalaf: Yes, I think we went too far back then, that was a mistake. The editorial position of the FT was supportive of the austerity policies of the British government of David Cameron and George Osborne. The pandemic highlighted for us how damaging some of the measures were, for example for the health sector.

DER SPIEGEL: In 2019, the FT launched an advertising campaign with the slogan: "Capitalism. Time for a reset.” Did that also refer to the newspaper itself?

Khalaf: No, the campaign captured some of the shifts that were reflected in our journalism. It was clear to us early on that climate change would become a huge issue for business, so we expanded our coverage. The same goes for the debate about executive pay, the demand for regulation of the tech giants or the rights of gig workers.

The Financial Times had 960,000 digital subscribers in 2020, as well as 140,000 print subscriptions.

Source: FT

Khalaf's path to the top of at FT didn’t lead through the City of London, the epicenter of financial reporting, but via the Middle East. She was born in Beirut in 1965. When the Israelis occupied Lebanon in 1982, the family had to move into a small flat only a two-minute walk from the legendary Commodore. At that time, the hotel in Beirut’s Hamra district was the home base for foreign correspondents, who wrote their reports from the civil war in the lobby and at the bar and sent them back to their editors using telex machines. "At times, we visited the hotel lobby, catching a glimpse of the war reporters huddled with machine-gun-wielding militiamen," Khalaf writes in the book "Our Women on the Ground," in which female correspondents discuss their work in the Arab World. Khalaf says she was an anxious teenager, but the men and women who reported from the front line "embodied a freedom and a purpose that I craved." Khalaf left Lebanon, studied communications and then international relations in New York before launching her career as a journalist.

DER SPIEGEL: Your father was the economics minister in Lebanon in the 1970s. Did you ever consider following him into politics instead of going into journalism?

Khalaf: My father quit politics because of the civil war. If you grew up in Lebanon during the civil war, it does not exactly put politics in a very good light. It did not even occur to me. Conversely, you needed so much information to manage your daily life, to make decisions: Can you go to school today, will you be locked down for the day, a week, a month? Can we stay here or do we have to move? That made me hungry for news.

DER SPIEGEL: You started working as a journalist for Forbes magazine in New York after graduating and one of your scoops even became a Hollywood movie: You exposed the scam of Jordan Belfort, the "Wolf of Wall Street." In Martin Scorsese's film, the reporter Khalaf makes a brief appearance. Did you find yourself well represented in the film?

Khalaf: Well, that was Hollywood, and my reporting was real life. So, in short,

DER SPIEGEL: Belfort describes you in his memoirs as an "insolent reporter" who "deserves an A for cleverness." Did you take that as a compliment or an insult?

Khalaf: I read it as a compliment, but I’m not sure whether a compliment coming from Belford is an insult.

Roula Khalaf and with Iraqi imam Sheikh Khaled Hammoud Mahal al-Jumaili in 2013

Roula Khalaf and with Iraqi imam Sheikh Khaled Hammoud Mahal al-Jumaili in 2013

Foto: Courtesy Financial Times

DER SPIEGEL: In 1995, you joined the FT as a foreign correspondent. Your first foreign assignment was the civil war in Algeria, you worked in Iraq and Iran and you covered the Arab Spring. Were there moments when you feared for your life?

Khalaf: Yes, at the beginning of my career as a correspondent, I was often in Algeria, and someone had offered to take me and introduce me to a rebel group. I was so excited that I went along – and for many hours, I didn't know whether I had been lured into a trap or would make it back to the hotel. I never told that to the FT.

DER SPIEGEL: Has your time in the Middle East made you more resistant to stress?

Khalaf: I hope so. No doubt my journey helped me. I have always had to work in difficult situations and deal with tough regimes.

Khalaf's predecessor Barber made the FT a pioneer in paid digital content in the mid-2000s, when most of the industry was afraid to do so. He increased the number of subscribers to almost 1 million, with three-quarters of those for digital versions. He was less successful in ridding the FT of its image as a "show-off paper" of the predominantly male financial elite. In his diary, Barber writes: "Roula and our feisty business editor Sarah Gordon find the mansplainers" in the editorial meetings "mildly amusing but often frustrating." He adds: "One day, I'll deal with the alpha male problem, but not today.” Another anecdote shows how newsroom culture has long been: When Khalaf turned up late for a morning editorial meeting a few years ago, she excused herself by saying that her young son had refused to enter the school building. Many female colleagues subsequently thanked her in emails for her openness. At the beginning of the pandemic, Khalaf wrote in an email to the editorial staff that they would get through this crisis with "care and solidarity." Roula is "as tough as Lionel as a journalist," says one editor, "but such words would never have crossed his lips.”

"There were days when I was the only woman in the room."

DER SPIEGEL: In January 2020, you became the first woman to head the FT. Half of the major newspapers and magazines in the UK are now headed by women, including the Guardian, The Economist and The Sunday Times. Is it a coincidence or a sign of normality? How do you explain that?

Khalaf: As a result of evolution. It doesn't surprise me at all. It’s a greater mystery to me why Europe is so much slower. Objectively, there is no reason why women should be less suitable than men to head an editorial department.

DER SPIEGEL: How did the "alpha male problem” at the FT feel to you?

Khalaf: I never saw it as an alpha male problem. It was simply because there were too many men. There were days when I was the only woman in the room. It was obvious that there was a lack of women. That is different today. We are gradually getting to where we want to be and should be – 50/50 at all management levels.

DER SPIEGEL: The FT has two bots in place to ensure more presence of women in the reporting. How does that work?

Khalaf: The "Janet” bot alerts us when the number of women pictured on the website falls below a defined minimum. And the "She Said, He Said” bot tracks how many women we quote in our texts.

DER SPIEGEL: Do both have a measurable effect?

Khalaf: Yes, they gradually change how we write and edit a story. They raise awareness in the newsroom. A lot has happened. In our columns, for example, the proportion of women has risen from 20 to 30 percent in the past year.

DER SPIEGEL: Despite its efforts, the FT is still considered as a newspaper for men. How has the number of female readers developed?

Khalaf: The majority of our readers are still male and over 50, but the trend is in the right direction. What we have also seen, though, is that as our overall subscriber base has grown, the percentage of those that are women has remained relatively consistent. And the average proportion of women subscribers reading our stories has gone up by 4 percent since our focused efforts to deepen the engagement of women subscribers began.

DER SPIEGEL: Of its 1.1 million subscribers, 960,000 read the FT online. Has the pandemic accelerated the end of the printed edition?

Khalaf: In the beginning, we actually wondered what would become of the printed edition. We had delivery problems, we couldn't get the paper to our readers. But print has proved surprisingly resilient. The circulation of the printed weekend edition has even increased.

DER SPIEGEL: Where would you like to see the FT's circulation to be in five years?

Khalaf: The company has to issue the target. We are not looking so much at the number growing quickly, but at subscribers staying with us and not leaving after three months. With discounts, you can quickly gain millions of readers. Our goal is to achieve that with good journalism.

Since 2015, the FT has solidified its reputation as an authority when it comes to hard-nosed investigative journalism, especially with its reporting on Wirecard. In a series of articles, editors Dan McCrum and Stefania Palma uncovered fraud and forgery at the German company, which was listed on the DAX index of blue-chip corporations. Time and again, Wirecard managed to refute the accusations, while at the same time doing everything it could to deceive the reporters. It even had them spied on. In January 2019, McCrum reported on balance sheet manipulation in Wirecard’s Asia business. Seventeen months later, the company collapsed.

Financial Time reporter Dan McCrum appears at a session of the parliamentary committee investigating Wirecard in Belin in 2020

Financial Time reporter Dan McCrum appears at a session of the parliamentary committee investigating Wirecard in Belin in 2020

Foto: Kay Nietfeld / dpa

DER SPIEGEL: Was there a moment when you worried that the story might not end well for the FT?

Khalaf: No. Our reporters knew what they were doing, they are just first class. I had full confidence. What made the story so extraordinary, was not so much our reporting but the company's reaction to it. I've never seen anything like it – and I've worked in quite a few dodgy places. It ranged from intimidation to harassment to all kinds of dirty tricks played on our reporters.

DER SPIEGEL: And culminated in the German financial regulator BaFin filing charges against your reporters.

Khalaf: An unimaginable reaction, instead of looking at the company!

DER SPIEGEL: Have BaFin or the German government apologized to you for this in the meantime?

Khalaf: Not to my knowledge, but I know this is a question that comes up in Germany.

DER SPIEGEL: Did your lawyers ever come up to you with a calculation of what a court ruling for libel would have cost the FT in the worse-case scenario? British libel law provides for draconian and potentially ruinous penalties.

Khalaf: On Wirecard? No, it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Of course, I have to weigh risks as editor, but investigations are part of our core business and we want more of them, especially in the corporate sector.

DER SPIEGEL: In that case, the pressure was particularly high, Wirecard's very existence was at stake - and the whole credibility of the FT. How did you personally deal with it?

Khalaf: We didn't consider it an existential thing at the FT. Of course, the editor is under enormous pressure in such cases. But that's just the job.

DER SPIEGEL: Roula Khalaf, we thank you for this interview.

Editor Isabell Hülsen conducted this interview by video.

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