by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
Dear FT Leaders, FT Columnist and Professor Summers,
I read with great attention Professor Lawrence Summers opinion piece written in the 09 October 2018 edition of the Financial Times titled “I discovered the rest of America on my summer holiday.” In his article, Summers, an FT columnist and former US Treasury Secretary stated that he embarked on a two-week holiday which involved driving across parts of America. During his travel, he discovered parts of America that he was not usually accustomed to. Professor Summers who is more used to travelling on planes discovered that a vast part of the “country is uninhabited”; he discovered that there were places that had no mobile service; he discovered abandoned cafés, gas stations and hotels; he discovered the remoteness of the concerns of the coastal people; he discovered for the first time that “Many ranchers and native Americans wanted to see their children educated,” and he discovered “How profoundly different ways of life are within the US.”
What I find amusing is it took Professor Summers 64 years after his birth, 48 years after his admission to MIT, 36 years after he graduated with a PhD from Harvard, 25 years after he was Chief Economist of the World Bank, 19 years after he was appointed US Treasury Secretary and 12 years after he became an FT columnist to discover 99% of America. Ever since he penned his first FT column on 29 October 2006, Summers has written 214 articles over a 12-year period. Summers recent discovery confirms my long-standing suspicion that FT columnists in general and the FT in particular, live in an echo chamber.
Without a doubt, Financial Times is one of the most influential newspapers in the world. It has the attention of millions of readers including politicians, captains of industry and think tanks. I have been an avid reader of the Financial Times for the past sixteen years and have learnt a lot. However, I don’t necessarily agree with every word that proceeds out of the paper. I identify myself as a black man of African heritage, which differs from the identity of the quintessential FT Columnist. From time to time, I express my disagreement by writing ‘We see things differently’ rejoinders to the writers. Over the years, I have exchanged emails with some FT columnists and the dialogue suggests to me that some of them live in a world that differs from the average folk on the street. Professor Summers recent article is emblematic of this disconnect from reality.
The disconnection is partly due to the lack of diversity in colour, opinion and experience at the FT. This lack of diversity can lead to a situation whereby undercurrents’ happening in the real world goes unnoticed. It could also explain why the absurdity of Professor Summers article escaped the editorial process.
Admittedly, there are columnists of colour like Janan Ganesh, Rana Foroohar and Roula Khalaf who write regularly for the FT, however, they are the notable exceptions to the rule. I stand to be corrected, but my analysis revealed that of the 861 articles written by FT columnists since 1 January 2018, there was no article written by a black columnist. When I broached this lack of diversity with one of your esteemed columnist, I was informed that standards of intellectual relevance apply. I refuse to believe that there is a paucity of black writers capable of intellectual rigour. The lack of diversity of FT columnist plays out in race-related articles. People within my community see the FT as a paper that has little or no understanding of black issues. We watch in amusement as we see predominately white men use the pages of FT to argue to millions of readers that — expunging slave-owners names erase our complex history; white self-interest is not the same as racism; black agitators are stifling free speech; the racism drama in the NBA is more about money than moral; George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin was not motivated by racism and Africa should nudge its population down. We scratch our heads when we see white FT male writers argue against the pulling down of statues of controversial dead white men like Cecil Rhodes as they keep silent when the statues of controversial women of colour like Aung San Suu Kyi are removed.
Besides the lack of FT columnist diversity, there is also a lack of diversity in the leadership. Excluding the 2 non-executive members of the FT leadership who are based in Japan, 11 out of 11 of the FT Exco are white (see below).
For the sake of clarity, I am not suggesting that the FT is institutionally racist. I am only bringing the lack of diversity to the FT leadership in the hope that something would be done to address it. As a starter, the FT could consider expanding its recruitment pool beyond the traditional places where it gets its columnists. But we can’t afford to compromise on standards you may argue. Agreed, but standards of excellence are not the exclusive preserve of a race, region or school. In addressing the diversity of colour, there might be a temptation to bring in people who look brown, think white and see green. If you decide to choose this path of least resistance, my advice is to address colour diversity in conjunction with the diversity of experience and opinion.
In addition to the lack of colour diversity, there is a lack of diversity in opinion. I appreciate that FT’s economic alignment is globalism and economic liberalism. I also appreciate that the FT is an Anglophone publication owned by a Japanese entity, published in London, for a global elite. However, this should not preclude the FT from accommodating alternative viewpoints. When economic nationalism and political socialism or communism is mentioned, it is usually as disadvantages. Very often the FT’s bias is plain for all to see. Terms like ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘far-right’ are used continuously to describe Italy’s Five Star Movement and Northern League respectfully. In describing leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, the terms ‘hard-left’ and ‘populist’ comes in handy. In addressing British politics, the paper rarely gives space to politicians who advocate socialism. The voices of trade unionists are usually ignored while officials from think tanks like Heritage Foundation and Policy Exchange (hardly called right wing) are given space to discuss their ideas. A Google search using the term ‘Corbyn financial times’ reveals hits like; “Jeremy Corbyn casts doubt on his ability to lead Britain “; “Conservatives must tackle social justice to beat Jeremy Corbyn”; “Jeremy Corbyn feeds the nasty populism of the left “; “Jeremy Corbyn is failing Britain with inept opposition.” In contrast , when describing Western educated neo-liberal finance ministers based in developing countries, the term “respected” is used.
There is also a lack of diversity in experience. As Professor Summers article demonstrates, very often the life experiences of elites differ from those impacted by the policies and writings of the elites. A review of the background of FT Columnists reveals a sizeable number come from the so-called middle/ upper-class hierarchy. Could this class bias explain why FT columnists often frown at policies which tend to favour the so-called working classes such as increased public spending, nationalisation, redistributive tax policies, workers representation on corporate boards and strict regulation of zero-sum contracts and payday lenders?
Even though 1% of the world controls 99% of the rest, the world is not limited to the interest of the 1%. The FT should stick to its motto — Without Fear or Favour i.e. Without fear of the 99% and without favour to the 1%. There needs to be a revolution in the FT — not the communist type of revolution, but a revolution that turns the mindset to see the world beyond a white middle class neo-liberal tinted lens. I urge you to emulate Professor Summers by stepping out of your echo chamber. Discover the rest of the world by visiting the ghettos, by reading books by non-white writers, by embracing non-orthodox economic theories, by building friendships with the poor, by engaging with the uneducated and by expanding your recruitment pool.
It is probable that all I have written will be dismissed as the ranting of an angry emotional black communist who lacks intellectual precision and professional rigour. That’s your prerogative. However, the FT needs to change the way it sees the world otherwise it could one day be dismissed as an elitist pink paper with no relevance for the 21st century.
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA