Commentary / Japan

FT challenges Nikkei's values

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a bleak day for journalism. Mr. Market and his idea that everything and anything can be bought if you pay enough has triumphed: Even so, news that the U.K. company Pearson has accepted £844 million (or $1.3 billion) in cash from Japan’s Nikkei for the Financial Times is depressing.

The Financial Times (FT to everyone) is everything that Nikkei is not: international where Nikkei is national; cosmopolitan and even eclectic in its coverage where Nikkei concentrates on business, finance and economy; frequently questioning and criticizing its own and other governments, where Nikkei ducks challenging Japan Inc.

I must confess a vested interest. After being taught by The Guardian to “mean every word that you write,” I joined the FT. Indeed, the FT today provides me with a small monthly pension, just enough for two tall cafe lattes a day, with the luxury of a grande on Sundays.

Gordon Newton, FT editor 1950-1973, was a difficult curmudgeonly man, who rarely wrote and was inarticulate in communicating. But he had the priceless assets of a great nose for news stories and insatiable curiosity about the world, which led him to shift the paper from being a financial tip sheet to a real business newspaper and then to a truly international paper. Newton hired bright graduates fresh from Oxford and Cambridge universities and gave them immediate opportunities of writing leading stories.

He made the peerless JDF Jones foreign editor at the age of 28. Jones cared little for economics and less for finance, but he was passionate about bringing the world to the FT and he developed the best and brightest foreign staff in international journalism. Later Jones founded FT Weekend.

I spent seven formative years at the FT, responsible for doubling the international company news coverage and then in charge of Asia before I quarreled with Newton’s successor — a much brighter man, but with narrower views about the paper’s coverage. He spiked articles I wrote predicting Brazil’s lost decade; he warned me for writing about corruption in Malaysia.

The FT is far from perfect. Tensions remain between its exploration of the world and editorial instincts reflecting the views of its most influential readers and advertisers, “the people who own the world.” My first story for the FT was the typhoon and election in then-East Pakistan. After long nights cabling hundreds of words from remote islands about how 250,000 people were dashed from the face of the earth by the fury of nature, I discovered on returning to London that their deaths merited only 220 words in the paper. Then I read 500 gushing words advocating gold-plated toenail covers as a wonderful Christmas present.

The FT was slow to take on potentially expensive and legally risky investigative journalism, especially about abuses in financial markets. But it has lately made distinguished inroads investigating scandals in high and low finance, corruption in China and FIFA, the struggles in Greece, not forgetting the Olympus scandal in Japan.

Today the FT is printed in 22 locations round the world, but 70 percent of its 737,000 subscribers read the paper digitally. Its editorial staff list reads like a mini United Nations. It has expert reporters and writers on everything from global economics and politics to the pros and cons of Chinese interference in the stock market, the intricacies of the euro, the cost of falling oil prices, haute couture, fine wines from France, how to write memos without gobbledygook, property in Croatia, the best and worst airports in the world, and the latest expensive baubles to keep the owners of the world happy, though nothing quite as costly as a $1.3 billion FT.

All this makes the FT the best newspaper in the world, followed by the New York Times (which maintains too many US imperial hangups). But best, even a profitable best, is clearly vulnerable.

For the previous 58 years, the FT’s independence had been protected by its ownership by Pearson, the U.K. educational publishing conglomerate. Then chief executive Marjorie Scardino responded to rumors of a sale by declaring that the FT would be sold “over my dead body.” Scardino is not dead, yet less than three years since she stepped down as CEO, her successor John Fallon sold the paper.

Fallon claimed that the FT needed to be part of a global media empire, which Pearson could not supply. He sang the praises of Nikkei: “They’ve been in the business of journalism for a long time, they are hugely admiring of the Financial Times. Their culture is huge respect for the integrity and quality of their journalism. They very much take a world view, as does the Financial Times.” He claimed the FT would remain “a great British institution.” No doubt the $1.3 billion, equivalent to 40 years of FT profits, helped his eloquence. For that, Nikkei doesn’t even get the FT building, for which it will have to pay rent to Pearson.

The world is becoming more global. In the old adage, the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in the deepest Amazon may trigger a tornado in Texas. The FT realizes this.

However, although we journalists like to think that our quest for news and honest comment is universal, even eternal, in many countries access to information is top secret, and the media are employees or slaves of government. Japan professes democracy and a free press, but mainstream media have a more restricted view of their role than the freewheeling British press. Michael Woodford, briefly president and CEO of Olympus Corporation before he exposed the $1.7 billion fraud involving the company, said he was “cynical and deeply troubled” by the FT’s purchase by a newspaper “known as the corporate voice of Japan.”

The Olympus scandal was broken by the FT and downplayed by Nikkei until too public to ignore. Similarly, this year the New York Times has been full of articles about exploding Japanese car air bags, an issue that has not had the same priority in Nikkei. The Guardian put the differences nicely: “Mainstream Japanese journalism is not corrupt, but it is respectful, like the culture around it. Anglo-Saxon journalistic traditions are not, at their best, respectful of anything.”

Nikkei is much bigger than the FT, selling 2.73 million copies in the morning and 1.4 million in the afternoon, with 430,000 digital subscribers. But it has acknowledged its weakness of being Japan-bound. Readers are dying, and readership falling, as younger Japanese, like young people everywhere, embrace digital communications.

Leading Nikkei executives see the FT as a passport to the world, which is why the two companies have been working together on a range of issues for many years, including syndication and Nikkei distribution of the FT.

Nikkei has promised to respect the integrity of the FT. “The FT will remain the FT; Nikkei is Nikkei,” said president Naotoshi Okada. But can the Japanese bridge the journalistic cultural divide, even if they understand it? Chairman Tsuneo Kita admitted that he wasn’t that familiar with the FT because his English isn’t fluent. “I don’t have the skill to read it but I do gaze upon it,” he said. Why not put a framed FT on his wall, with constantly changing images, to enjoy as an expensive work of art (though for the same price he could get 50 Cezannes or 120 Picassos or van Goghs and even a Leonardo da Vinci if the owners could be persuaded that Mr. Market is master).

Where is the synergy if Nikkei is to keep its hands off the FT? A reverse editorial takeover — by putting FT journalists into key positions in Japan to extend Nikkei’s global horizons — seems culturally trickier.

There may be better prospects working together on digital expansion or outside the United Kingdom and Japan in Asia, where Nikkei’s ambitions have met limited success. Nikkei Asian Review was launched in English in 2013. It has a Japanese editor-in-chief, mainly Japanese writers, and a wooden personality, as if unable to break through a thoroughly Japanese outlook. Its articles read as if translated literally from Japanese. (By comparison, China Daily, though a government organ, has a better sense of the world when dealing with non-Chinese matters, is better written, crisper, and understands English cadences.)

What is most disturbing is the intrusion of Mr. Market into the fate of a great newspaper. Time after time, investment bankers have won huge fees promoting big conglomerates to become giant oligopolies, putting together soaps and shampoos, cheeses and chocolates, into giant hamper companies, which they then profitably unpack years later, nothing to the advantage of consumers.

It is questionable whether international and Japanese news values will fit easily together, though from the FT’s point of view, Nikkei is better than buyers such as Bloomberg or Reuters, which might have been tempted to strip out the FT’s assets immediately.

Fallon won the market’s applause, and Pearson shares promptly rose on the rumors of the FT’s sale. But he has lost the priceless asset of the FT. Fallon was educated in my hometown at the University of Hull, whose poet-librarian Philip Larkin described the people as “a cut-price crowd, urban yet simple.” I fear that while in Hull Fallon imbibed too much of the local Kool-Aid. It taught him the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

Kevin Rafferty was in charge of the FT’s Asian coverage in the 1970s, and opened its first office in Hong Kong in 1981.