15 MARCH 2011


A research institute or a university graduate could perhaps prepare a detailed documented study on the coverage by the Financial Times (FT) of the Libyan revolt against its investor Muammar Qaddafi compared with its openly supportive role of the "Arab awakening" in Tunis, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere in that region.

Only a couple of weeks separated the highly credible daily from its editorials urging Europe to have a "date with history" and "help supply the building blocks of freedom" (7 February main comment) from headlines cautioning that rebel movements (with photos of their new/old Libyan flag) "bring threat of global downturn" through higher oil prices.

The day Qaddafi rambled from his bunker in Aziziyah, Tripoli, describing his own people as rats and drug addicts who should be cleaned from house to house, street to street, lane to lane, that horrid posturing described by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "very, very scary," FT's defiant headline was that the Libyan leader vowed to fight until "the death."

When half the country was already split, FT had a front page story including an "interview" with Al-Saadi Qaddafi minimizing events that shook the country, indicating it will bring Libyans closer together under the patronage of his father. More detail followed on the second page, about that thug who was overseeing the recruitment of mercenaries with his brother (who earlier swindled $1.2 billion from the National Oil Company to form a special security militia). A shrewd spin was in describing him as a "former professional footballer" (when his play was limited to wearing an Italian team's shirt), knowing full well that the British public would perceive favourably anyone related to their favourite game.

When a thousand people are reported dead, mainly through the dictator's ruthless response, the main FT front page headline was about "Saudi Bid to Beat Unrest"! Such a twist reminded some Middle Eastern readers of a January headline in Cairo's Al-Ahram during President Mubarak's last days; when multitudes of protesters occupied Tahrir Square, its main headline was on potential difficulties in Lebanon.

When Qaddafi expressed disappointment at the "betrayal" of the West and East, FT had a prominent half-page story (24 February) headlined: "Friends in High Places Turn Their Back on Tripoli". It mentioned Marco Tronchetti Provera, Chairman of Italian tyre maker Pirelli, who resigned from the advisory board of Libya Investment Authority, whose "retreat" was "in alarm over the regime's response to this month's uprising." The London School of Economics' Director, a former "unpaid advisor" to that same Authority, had to "share the students' revulsion" and a $1.2 million remaining of a $1.5 million grant to its North Africa 2009 program. A controversy over accusing Saif al-Islam Qaddafi of plagiarism in his "doctorate" thesis from that university was in fact one main sore point raised by angry staff. As to Saif, which means "Sword of Islam," when television and video reports showed him on top of a makeshift forum urging a crowd to seek out the "rats" and "clean the earth" from there, a FT prominent commentary presented him as a "pretty able" Davos regular who had "made clear he was in favour of fundamental change in Libya." In a pathetic spin, Sir Winston Churchill, no less, was invoked to advise everyone that "as we could not squash Gaddafi (sic), we were right to make do with squaring"!

When Qaddafi accused the multitudes against him as Al-Qaeda followers in an effort to regain Western sympathy, FT (8 March) had a story headed: "Rebels Call on Islam for Inspiration in Battle," together with a photo of fighters bowing at prayer.

An intriguing FT chart on 24 February persumably showed those linked with the Libyan Investment Fund ("Gaddafi's uncomfortable friends"). With the Libyan central photo, arrows pointed to America's Carlyle Group's Frank Carlucci, Italian Juventus football team, Britain's Tony Blair, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Italy's Silvio Berlesconi, Italy's UniCredit, Russia's Vladimir Putin, who in a 2000 visit cancelled a $4.5 billion debt in return for contracts with Russian companies, Nat Rothschild who hosted Saif at his father's home on the Greek island of Corfu and in New York, as well as Mr. Provera who as Mediobanca Vice Chairman had facilitated Libyan investments in Italy.

But what about the Financial Times itself? More accurately, what about the Pearson Group that publishes the FT? A conveniently overlooked investment by the Libyan dictator is 226 British Pounds, an equivalent of 1/2 billion dollars, in the Financial Times parent group. Profit may have been a main objective. Yet clearly another purpose would have been to have an effective hedge at volatile times. To be quite objective, the FT seemed at times to come through for him. After the U.N. Security Council resolution on sanctions and clear accountability for human rights violations, there was an excellent report by the highly professional FT U.N. correspondent Harvey Morris. Yet the spin continued.

Headlines on "Alarm over Libya No-Fly Zone," "Gaddafi Forces Launch Big Offensive," together with "Gaddafi Loyalists" taking over. As to U.K. Prime Minister Cameron, who played a pivotal role in the Council's resolution, his lead on Libya "Sows Confusion" (3 March). Additionally, he was "Learning on the Job."

There seems to have been an editorial tug within the FT during this period, more than the usual -- and welcome -- differences of flowing opinion. An example was that on Saturday, 12 March, a cartoon depicted the no fly zone over Libya as a destructive hurricane; while an editorial, in an obvious shift, on Monday, 14 March, urged to impose it; whatever was behind both positions, it signalled a healthy disagreement in a free society. It may be argued that in open markets the business of business is business. The Pearson Group is not a humanitarian society and its subsidiary, the FT, will have to do what it has to do -- particularly in these delicate financial times. That prestigious group has adequate intelligence to decide what's good for it, what it can get away with, and how it interprets the Libyan "investment." For the Libyan ruling mafia, if not for many others, the money was quite bluntly a "bribe" similar to those habitually paid to media and academic groups, only at a larger scale, most likely upon informed advice about the high standing of its recipient.

Anyway, there is a generally recognized media practice in open societies for the need for "disclosure" of financial interests. The FT seems to have overlooked that practice and principle throughout the first few weeks of the Libyan crisis, even when disclosing other interested parties. It was only on 4 March that it was reported in passing. You had to read a news item very carefully to find out, among other things, about a 226 million British Pound Libyan investment in The Pearson Group.

The other more relevant point has to do with the credibility and standing of perhaps the most prestigious and most informative daily for any thoughtful internationalist.

The FT, our most cherished paper for decades, had gained steadily growing attention over the last fifteen years. Reasons could be analyzed by experts. But a general guess would be that it gained a mainstream readership through professional reporting, enlightened commentary, a credible team of editors, respect for its readers, informed analysis and raising relevant pressing issues "without fear and without favour." It will be very sad for all of us if it risked eroding all that, plus a tragic human toll, for what an Italian "Spaghetti Western" movie once described as a "fistful of dollars."