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A change of order

13 Nov 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
A change of order

The appointment of the Financial Times' first female editor is part of a growing trend in media organisations, writes Raymond Snoddy. But does it signify a turning point?

By any standards Roula Khalaf is a worthy successor to Lionel Barber as editor of the Financial Times. Period.

Khalaf has worked on the paper for 24 years, is already deputy editor organising the paper’s network of 100 foreign correspondents, speaks French and Arabic and has even been immortalised as a journalist character in the film the Wolf of Wall Street.

Khalaf also just happens to be the first woman editor in the paper’s 160-year history. Born in war-torn Beirut she even manages to ring a second bell at the same time for the FT’s Japanese owners – diversity.

She will bring expert knowledge of one of the world’s more unsettled regions and with it, almost certainly, a greater degree of trust for the paper.

The greatest diversity the FT has ever had before in the editor’s chair was the German Jewish refugee Fredy Fisher who later went on to become a merchant banker. Other than that, white, male Oxbridge editors have been the order of the day.

Despite the fact that Khalaf is a worthy editor without qualification, it is still of great symbolic importance that she is also the first female editor and one that comes originally from a very different cultural background.

Numbers are important. The first of anything stands out and is noticed. The second and the third becomes the new normality.

We all notice that the England football team is about to play its 1,000th game.

Alison Phillips is the current female editor of the Daily Mirror but she is only the second to do so. The first female editor of the paper was its founding editor Mary Howarth in 1903.

It may be happening too slowly but male female equality seems to be at last heading in the right direction.

The latest figures show that by the end of next year the number of women directors in FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies will have reached the target of one third. Then it should be onwards and upwards to full gender equality.

Ironically it was Dame Marjorie Scardino, the first female chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, who appointed the previous two male FT editors Andrew Gowers and Barber.

Next year, Khalaf will take over a paper that is in very good shape.

Under Barber and chief executive John Ridding, the FT has managed the transition to digital better than most while still producing its daily pink paper edition, albeit in declining numbers.

In a way the choices the company faced on the transition to a digital-first policy were easier to take than most.

The FT has long since been an international newspaper and it is impossible to haul physical copies around the world in a timely way even if it wanted to.

It also has time sensitive information that readers are prepared to pay for as long as they have it before its value fades and that makes subscriptions relatively easy to sell. General newspapers face a tougher struggle.

As a result, earlier this year the FT was able to announce that it had signed up 1 million paying subscribers, a year ahead of target, and last year the paper produced £25 million profit on revenues of £383 million.

The Guardian has of course already got there in the female editor stakes with Katherine Viner but there are a few big peaks still to climb in the national press not least The Times and the Daily Telegraph.

There is a momentum with these things and when vacancies arise, and if male were to continue to follow male, the question will increasingly be asked were there really no perfectly qualified women candidates.

A lot of newsrooms still dominated by men at the top could benefit from female, and generally more co-operative sensibilities, to help reach out to a wider range of readers.

In broadcasting the “first woman” barrier has long since been crossed with Carolyn McCall running ITV and Alex Mahon at Channel 4.

The biggest pinnacle of all is still waiting to be conquered – the director-generalship of the BBC.

The mood has now so changed that if Lord Tony Hall is not followed by a woman when he stands down questions will be asked whether there really is not a qualified candidate anywhere in the Corporation or across the wider media industries.

At events such as the Society of Editor’s annual conference young talented women are coming to the fore – apart from Alison Phillips the panels were enhanced by the likes of Alessandra Galloni, global managing editor of Reuters, Nancy Fielder, editor of The Star, Sheffield Telegraph and Doncaster Free Press, Claire Newell, investigations editor of The Telegraph and Tracy De Groose, executive chair of Newsworks.

While women are increasingly winning top prizes the same cannot be said about diversity.

It’s a complicated issue with social pressure, at least in the past, on the children of particularly Asian migrants to go for “respectable” and rather better paid more traditional careers such as medicine, law and accountancy rather than the media.

The effort to persuade has to be made and it makes business sense for media organisations to target newsrooms and production units that reflect the percentage of the BAME community in society.

This is particularly obvious in London.

Then of course there is the vexed question of money and the fact that historically there have been notorious cases of women being underpaid relative to men while doing the same job.

In the BBC there have been the most blatant examples of men and women sitting on the same Breakfast sofa earning vastly different amounts.

The recent high profile gender discrimination case brought by Newswatch presenter Samira Ahmed against the BBC has raised the old issues – unfortunately in a less than clear form.

She received the same fee as her male Newswatch predecessor – me – and therefore has to rely on the fact that Jeremy Vine received nearly seven times as much for presenting a programme of similar length – Points of View.

The disparity of pay between what was seen as a news programme and light entertainment and between the thoroughly professional Ahmed and the better known Vine seems too great but the arguments appear difficult to make.

Whatever the outcome the case has given greater prominence to the cause of equal pay for women and even if Ahmed fails this time because of the very particular circumstances, others will follow.

We can only hope that the first female editor of the Financial Times will receive as much as Lionel Barber.

Perhaps she should receive even more because Barber is not so fluent in Arabic.

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08 Jul 2020 

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