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Donkin's World: Prison Visiting

Richard Donkin tells of FT days.

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Prison visiting
Iíd forgotten how much Iíd been missing London. Recently I had a good day there. I gave a presentation in the morning to some HR managers before having lunch with my old mucker, Jimmy Burns, at RORC (the Royal Ocean Racing Club). We bumped in to David Palmer, a former chief executive of the Financial Times. Palmer was there during the early part of my FT career and, while he had been a journalist initially, had moved to ďthe other sideĒ Ė the part that focused on revenues, advertising and production.

There was a strong feeling in the editorial in those days, to which Jimmy and I both subscribed, that journalists were journalists and should have nothing to do with the responsibilities of running a business. This has all changed, but not necessarily for the better. Too much soft, PR-led journalism, has moved in to the newspaper in recent years.

Before writing on work and management I had the role of investigative journalist without portfolio at the FT, a role I was asked to define for myself by the then editor, Sir Geoffrey Owen. Owen was pleased with a story I had covered on the involvement of BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International)in drug laundering. It was probably one of the best pieces I ever did for the FT.

With the backing of his deputy and soon-to-be editor, Richard Lambert, now director general of the Confederation of British Industry, Owen asked me to outline an investigative role. He made it clear that the newspaper had reservations about investigative journalism after having its fingers burnt when it ran a story on the alleged source of Mohamed Al-Fayedís wealth. That story and the way the FT caved in to a legal challenge had serious repercussions for the way that Al-Fayed was handled subsequently by the rest of the UK media.

Geoff Owen set the tone of the newspaper as a civilised place to work in those days. He had a liking for stories that covered the minutiae of industry. While he was pleased with the drug laundering story, I knew that it really wasnít his thing. I think he found it hard to believe and somewhat distressing that a bank could engage in such nefarious activities.

Geoff was more interested in companies that made things. I know that it saddened him to discover that in the late 1980s the last of Britainís once great machine tool industry was being snapped up by Iraqi businesses engaged in building Saddam Hussein's military strength and, more worryingly, laying the ground work for a nascent nuclear weapons programme. Iraq may never have succeeded in obtaining nuclear weapons, but it was not for the want of trying.

I will write more of this investigative work and the arms to Iraq story in future, but I just want to mention a story of mine that Geoff would often recall when I came in to his presence. It was about paint brushes, or, to be more precise, about paintbrush bristles and Chinese pig bristle exports. I know why he liked it. I too enjoyed writing the story. I never knew pigsí bristles could be so interesting and that was the whole point. Geoff understood that behind many businesses there were all kinds of hidden, if sometimes mundane yet at the same time fascinating, stories, and where better to tell them than in the FT.

He wanted me to do another story, this time outlining the way the stationary and paper supply industry was put together. I began the task but sadly soon lost the will to live, trying to work out what at that time was a mass of small, medium and often interconnected businesses. So I never did go down the paperclips route but instead moved in to a rather more exciting field mixing with merchant bankers, quite a few financial crooks and a whole range of financial investigators, not to mention the spooks, although I will mention some of them in time.

Over the next few months Iím going to blog a series of recollections of my early career at the FT. It was a time when we had so many people who have moved in to influential positions, including some who have become familiar names such as Ed Balls, Robert Peston and Andrew, now Lord Adonis.

Iím not the first to observe that we can become prisoners of our past. For this reason I try not to spend too much time reminiscing as Iím too busy thinking about the future. Iím still ambitious and Iím determined to get my novel published with plans also to write more non-fiction books on business and management. But, all the same, itís good to chat about the old days with a friend and former colleague. They were great days, but maybe the best is yet to come.

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