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Why The Economist is so successful (and other insider secrets)

Why The Economist is so successful (and other insider secrets)
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First Published: Sat, Apr 07 2007. 12 38 AM IST

Updated: Sat, Apr 07 2007. 12 38 AM IST
I see that you have several toys to keep yourself busy,” says Bill Emmott with a wry smile, even as I fumble to put away my Blackberry and cellphone, and shake hands with the former editor of The Economist.
It is almost exactly 6:30pm. Emmott is not a minute late for our meeting. I have arrived a good 30 minutes before time, an indication of both the unpredictability of Mumbai’s early-evening traffic as well as my transparent eagerness to meet a man whose work I have admired from afar. It is ironical that he sports a Leninesque beard and hairline, since the weekly he edited for 13 years is proudly—and some would say arrogantly—positioned as the voice of liberal capitalism. But then, its ironical tone has always been one of the reasons The Economist is such a delight to read.
A year ago, Emmott, 50, gave up what he still describes as the best job in the world to write a book. I open with the obvious question: What is the book about? It’s about the three great Asian powers—Japan, China and India. “For the first time ever, Asia will have three great powers simultaneously. My new book will look at how they will interact with one another,” says Emmott.
The major part of the book will deal with the strategic rivalry in Asia. Emmott believes that this rivalry will intensify as India takes off. “But this is a book about how the rivalry between these three countries can be managed; it is not about the coming war in Asia,” warns Emmott.
Of course, he will also look at how their economic ties either play upon or assuage their political suspicions. Emmott predicts that the economic rivalry between India and China will intensify in the years ahead, as India becomes a manufacturing superpower and its companies come head to head against Chinese companies in several markets.
We are sitting in the Harbour Bar at the Taj Mahal Hotel. By now, Emmott has finished with the sweetened lime and soda that he has ordered to quench his thirst. He now joins me for a glass of red wine. He makes a case for India to play a bigger role in the region. “I can clearly see the need to get India involved in Asian institutions, to get another Asian player in the framework to balance China,” he says. Japan cannot play this role because of its history and parochial culture.
While we are on the subject of the dragon and the elephant, I ask Emmott about the fact that critics of The Economist often accuse it of being more sympathetic to China than to India. The magazine that adamantly calls itself a newspaper (yet another idiosyncrasy) has been, for example, vehemently opposed to the India-US nuclear deal, and was so even when Emmott was editor. He has changed his view since then. “No doubt persuaded further by my current visit to Delhi, I now think the earlier criticism of the US-India pact was shortsighted,” he wrote in a recent article in the London Times. Emmott adds: “Future historians should give Bush low marks for his deadly incompetence in Iraq. But… that failure can and should be mitigated by Bush’s one shrewd and successful strategic step: the recognition of India’s importance.” (For the record, the weekly continues to be critical of the Bush administration’s efforts to help India’s nuclear programme.)
The Economist likes to stick its neck out on the important issues of the day, which is a reason why it appeals to so many readers across the globe. There is none of the waffling that a lot of other publications deal in. Once you take a position, you will get it right sometimes and wrong sometimes.
It was bang on target in its criticism of the New Economy and its insistence that America had a bubble economy in the late 1990s. The Economist swam against the tide for several years—till the tide turned its way when the bubble burst. But the magazine (sorry, newspaper) has got it wrong on several occasions as well.
It wrote in 1998 that oil prices were on a permanently low plateau. It supported the American invasion of Iraq. And argued against an invasion in the Balkans, one that proved to be successful. It could also be wrong in the current belief that the Indian economy is overheated. Or it could be right.
The point is that each position it takes forces the reader to think. “Everyone wants to understand the big trends, which is why we make these calls. But you should do it with humility,” explains Emmott. “The most difficult calls to make are the political ones. You can get it completely wrong. Even on oil prices, our mistake was political rather than economic. We got the politics of OPEC wrong, and underestimated the ability of Saudi Arabia to cut supplies.” Even on Iraq, Emmot offers a defence for his support of the US invasion. “Given the information available to us at the time, we did have good reason to support the action against Saddam Hussain’s regime,” says Emmott.
While it’s easy to tot up the hits and misses, the more important point is that The Economist has been on the winning side in a far more long-lasting battle—between markets and state control. Does he feel a sense of satisfaction that the job is done? Emmott says the battle is not over. “Some of the old issues still remain. Look at the lack of progress in the Doha trade talks. And then there are new issues. We did a cover supporting gay marriage a few years ago. So the need to defend liberal principles is still there,” he says. And he suggests that even the staff at The Economist is not as clearly in favour of free markets as is commonly assumed. “My deputy editor Clive Crook and I would sometimes joke that we were two liberals in the midst of a socialist crowd,” he adds, with a smile.
I now try to steer Emmott towards something that most financial journalists have never quite understood: What makes The Economist so successful? Over a million people buy it every week, which by the way is double what Emmott started off with during his tenure as its editor. The weekly continues to be read avidly around the world, and seems immune to the online threats that send so many other important western publications into paroxysms of worry.
Emmott offers three explanations. First, it is a genuinely global journal. The Wall Street Journal is too American and while the Financial Times is more global, it is far closer to European concerns. Second, The Economist is independent of corporate, government and national loyalties, so its analytical style is truly independent. Third, there is the writing style—short and crisp, or cut-the-crap style, as Emmott defines it. “We have few quotes or adjectives. We just get to the point,” he says.
We? “Bill, you said ‘we’ just now. Does it mean that you haven’t quite left The Economist?” I ask him. He laughs. “In my heart, I will never leave it.”
That’s a surprisingly sentimental remark from a man who once headed a magazine that is seen by outsiders—both its admirers and critics—as relentlessly cerebral. That last remark perhaps says a lot about both the man and the magazine.
Name: Bill Emmott
Born: 1957
Education: Graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford (UK) Postgraduate research on the French communist party at Nuffield College
Work Profile: Joined The Economist in 1980. Editor of the weekly from 1993 to 2006. An expert on Japan, he has written six books on the country. He is currently writing a book on the balance between India, China and Japan.
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First Published: Sat, Apr 07 2007. 12 38 AM IST
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