Luck helps Gideon to summit of journalism

ALEX ZATMAN chats to a newsman who has become one of Britain's top commentators

MORE than anything else, luck has played the significant role in the rise of Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times chief foreign affairs correspondent. Or so he believes.

A frequent television talking head in the last few years owing to the global financial meltdown and resultant social upheaval, Gideon is refreshing in that he is eager to play down his evident talent and vast bank of political intelligence.

A graduate of Cambridge University, he started his career at the BBC before a stint as a Fulbright scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey.

He was stationed in Washington for the now-defunct Sunday Correspondent during the late 1980s, and spent the next 15 years at The Economist as its deputy American editor and later as its South-East Asia correspondent, based in Bangkok.

Gideon, an avowed secular Jew, started his current role at the FT in July, 2006.

He had hoped, though it now seems foolish, not to have to comment too much on the quarrelling Middle East, having had no experience in the region.

But fate has been an angel and a devil to the 48-year-old. The same week he joined, Israel invaded Lebanon following the abduction of Israeli soldiers.

Despite fearing his Jewish heritage could preclude readers from respecting his opinion on the conflict, the father-of-four grabbed his new keyboard and "directly addressed the issue".

He said: "It is a difficult issue for me. I'm the chief foreign affairs commentator - an opinion columnist.

"I have to make sure those opinions are derived from principles rather than ethnicity.

"I always want to try to reach an opinion that is not based on nationalist prejudice but a coherent point of view.

"I'm very conscious of the fact that if you're writing about Israel, people may discount what you say because you're coming from a particular point of view due to your name."

While the Jewish community in Britain may, on occasion, feel besieged by the media when it comes to Israel, many will be relieved to hear that they have a fair-minded writer at the top of the game.

Gideon said: "In some ways, Israel is both the victim and the beneficiary of double standards.

"Things that the Israelis do, be they right or wrong, get much more attention than similar deaths of civilians in military conflicts in Africa and Afghanistan.

"Israelis are right when they say that a story in Gaza gets far more attention than something in Waziristan.

"That said, there is, in America and to an extent in Europe, a powerful group of people, not exclusively Jews, who are prepared to make Israel's case.

"In that sense, Israel has an unusually powerful group of friends."

His is a passionately liberal South African-Jewish family and his heritage is ingrained in his DNA.

"I've always been conscious of being Jewish," he explained.

"It's part of my identity.

"That said, it is baffling. It's amorphous, it's hard to pin down but there is something there."

He was born in England but spent some of his childhood in South Africa, where his parents came from.

The Rachmans returned during the "height of apartheid", but his parents were closely tied to the movement to bring it down.

"The Jewish community was disproportionately involved in the anti-apartheid movement," he recalled.

"I'm conscious of it and proud. Quite why they were involved, I'm not sure.

"Friends of my parents had been arrested with Nelson Mandela and another family had Steve Biko staying with them."

Coming from such a vigorously political household, his appears to have been an inexorable rise to be one of Britain's leading commentators on world affairs.

Gideon regularly appears on television, radio and at international conferences, in addition to his work at the FT.

In 2010, he published a book - Zero-Sum World - that charted the growth of Western capitalism before the 2008 credit crunch and offers the prediction that the new age of austerity will witness a rise in tensions between the world's major powers.

He explained how he decided early on in life that journalism was the career he wanted to pursue.

His first break came via a family connection.

Gideon's uncle, Ronnie Hope, was the news editor at the Jerusalem Post when Israel invaded Lebanon for the first time, and there was the erstwhile Cambridge student stepping into the Arab world for his first reporting adventure.

In an age when bombastic media figures appear to flaunt their disregard for press morality, Gideon is a moderating presence.

He said: "I think I'm in an incredibly privileged position, to be paid to think about the most interesting stories, to travel and write about them.

"It's the dream job. If I weren't motivated for this there would be a problem."

His greatest pleasure, he recalled, was following the 2008 American presidential election on the ground.

Gideon, an enthusiast of American politics from a young age, was there as the first votes were cast in the New Hampshire primary and was in the audience when Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party's nomination at the traditional political bonanza, the quadrennial convention.

He said: "I'd read about these historic presidential elections, but to follow one was terrific."

Gideon is also devoted to European politics. So when the euro currency was to be inaugurated, there he was in a town on the Dutch-German border when notes first appeared from the cash machines.

And his years in South-East Asia provided a return to Britain's colonial past.

"Some of the more exotic places such as Burma are the most cut off," he explained.

"When you get out to these strange hill towns, there are still crumbling British colonial houses. It is great for Burma if it changes, as it looks to be, but I won't forget that strangeness."

He insists that luck has been the prime mover of his career - "the right thing came along at the right time".

In the late 1980s, under the editorship of the late Christopher Hitchens, The Sunday Correspondent, where Gideon was freelancing, closed.

Fortunately, a job had opened at the American edition of The Economist, where he stayed for 15 years until he grew tired.

Rather than gallivant across the world once more, the timing of a change of editorship at the FT couldn't have been more convenient and he was offered a role there.

"Luck plays a huge part in these things," he claimed.

As for the current state of world affairs, inevitably there is a focus in his work on Israel and the financial crisis currently enveloping Europe.

He said of Europe's role in the Middle East: "It is easy to dismiss it.

"But often the nations of Europe have reached their positions, such as on the two-state solution and on the PLO, much faster than America, which plays the central role.

"Th EU has been at the leading edge of western opinion."

But the writer is not worried about the growth of Islamist parties in post-Arab Spring elections.

"There is a worry but not necessarily a cause for panic," Gideon said.

"Mubarak was a diplomatic friend but encouraged a demonisation of Israel in the press."

Despite the fears of Israelis, however, he does not believe any Egyptian government would abrogate the two nations' peace treaty.

Gideon believes 2012 will usher in further economic and social unrest across Europe.

He warned: "That's actually optimistic. There is a real danger of another financial crash in Europe. That could plunge the British economy into trouble.

"The biggest focus for me will be watching what happens to the euro and the European Central Bank.

"If something goes badly wrong that will change the world."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph