Financial Times

Views of the world

Published: May 19 2006 14:51 | Last updated: May 19 2006 14:51

Who is the most influential commentator in China? Or the most powerful voice in Iran? Or Britain? FT foreign correspondents gave us their picks, and came up with a revealing list that says as much about the world’s political elites as the media that analyse them.

Do you disagree? Who would you have chosen? Have your say..

AUSTRALIA - Alan Jones

Paul Keating, Australia’s former Labour prime minister, once described conservative radio host Alan Jones as a pedlar of “middle-of-the-road fascism”. But Jones has survived, indeed thrived, on such insults all his life and is now the undisputed king of talkback radio in Sydney, Australia’s biggest city.

Prime minister John Howard has made many appearances on Jones’s 2GB morning radio show, as have many other national figures who feel Jones is too influential to ignore. They may be right: in 2001 the then New South Wales premier, Bob Carr (another frequent Jones guest), sacked his police minister, Paul Whelan, after Whelan criticised Jones for running a virulent campaign against the police force.

A former Australian rugby coach, Jones was lured to 2GB from a rival station in 2002 by a reported A$4m yearly salary plus a 20 per cent stake in the station.

Often controversial, his paid on-air endorsements of Australian companies led broadcasting regulators to investigate him for taking “cash for comment”, and he must now disclose all his commercial agreements. He has also been rebuked by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (for criticising a commission witness); fined for contempt of court; and frequently sued for defamation, though by no means always successfully.

Not that it seems to matter: in the 2004 Queen’s birthday honours, Jones was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to the media and sport.
Lachlan Colquhoun, Sydney.

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BRAZIL - Elio Gaspari

Brazil has many influential columnists but no one has the range or depth of Elio Gaspari. Published in both the pro-opposition Folha de Sao Paulo and the more pro-government O Globo in Rio de Janeiro, Gaspari is an independent and occasionally surreal writer whose encyclopedic knowledge of Brazil lends a gravitas to his political commentary.

His four- (soon to be five) volume history of Brazil’s 20-year military dictatorship is a bestseller and his columns are peppered with insightful historical references. In recent weeks Gaspari has been a

vituperative critic of the leftwing government of president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, especially its faltering foreign policy. But Gaspari is equally likely to criticise Brazil’s economic elites and the main opposition parties that they support. And he often takes up quite local issues, questioning the fairness of ticketing plans for the Sao Paulo public transport system, for example.

“He is not only very perceptive and very attentive, he also has real influence and gets decisions changed,” says Fabio Santos, editor until recently of the monthly journal Primeira Leitura.

A close second to Gaspari would be Miriam Leitao, a journalist who writes a daily column for O Globo and whose morning TV programme Bom Dia, Brasil is seen by millions of people each day. Leitao was previously an investigative leftwing reporter, but her explanation of Brazil’s orthodox economic policies and her defence of the benefits of economic stability have made her a national figure.
Richard Lapper, Latin America editor.

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CANADA - Margaret Wente

Canada’s better known columnists range from The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson, who has soberly analysed Ottawa politics for the past 20 years, to the National Post’s Terence Corcoran, an indefatigable advocate of free markets. Even the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is mixing news and opinion: a garrulous Newfoundlander, Rex Murphy, offers comment on its prime-time news show.

But for perceptive observations on the issues of the day, leavened with humour and common-sense, it is hard to beat The Globe’s Margaret Wente.

Wente is a former business editor who makes no secret that she is on the wrong side of 50 and has used her hip replacements to comment on Canada’s increasingly strained healthcare system.

In a country suffused with political correctness, Wente is refreshing, if hard to pigeon-hole. “I’m all for multiculturalism, up to a point. Head scarves, turbans and kirpans don’t bother me at all. But my open-minded tolerance deserts me when I see women completely covered up. In every culture where this is the norm, women are oppressed. Do I need to learn to be more tolerant? Or am I right to think that women in chadors (and, more to the point, the men who walk four steps in front of them) should adapt to us?”
Bernard Simon, Toronto.

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CHILE - Hermogenes Perez de Arce

As the most prominent defender of the disgraced former dictator Augusto Pinochet, Hermogenes Perez de Arce is something of an anachronism in the new democratic Chile. But he is still the mostly widely read columnist in the country.

“Many people may hate him but everybody reads whatever he writes,” says Marta Lagos, the director of Latinobarometro, a prominent Santiago-based polling company. “He has had a longstanding influence.”

Perez de Arce’s staunch defence of Pinochet and the repressive regime of the 1970s and 1980s provides an important reference point against which the anti-Pinochet and democratic political mainstream defines itself. His elegantly written and witty columns in El Mercurio defend unfashionable conservative causes such as the restrictive divorce laws that were liberalised less than two years ago. He is also apt to slam the decline of public morality or the incidence of pre-marital sex. Against the Current, a selection of his columns, was a bestseller in Santiago last year.

A handful of other columnists, including Carlos Pena (who also writes for El Mercurio), reflect more middle-of-the-road thinking. None, perhaps, is as widely read nor widely known as Perez de Arce, but Chile is changing. Clinic, a left-of-centre satirical weekly launched when Pinochet was arrested seven years ago in London (and held under police custody in a clinic), is one of the best-read weeklies in the country.
Richard Lapper, Latin America editor.

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CHINA - Hu Shuli

Hu Shuli is a business columnist, but that bland description tells you little about the impact of her writing in China in the past five years. As editor of the thriving Beijing-based Caijing (Finance) magazine, Hu has exposed accounting fraud, environmental degradation and the hyper-sensitive issue of Communist party control of personnel in top state enterprises. One prominent banker calls her “Scandal Lady”, out of both fear and admiration. The 53-year-old former Worker’s Daily journalist also uses her bi-weekly column to press the government to pursue market reforms. “All of China’s successful economic reforms since 1978 can be summed up in one simple statement: ‘Reduce direct government intervention and increase the reign of the market,’” she wrote recently in an attack on state manipulation of the property market. “A profit-driven local government cannot ensure the stable development of the sector; instead it becomes an accomplice pushing up housing prices.”

Another influential columnist is the leftist Zhu Dongli, a researcher at the Marxism Institute who moonlights for the adventurous Phoenix Weekly current affairs magazine. He thinks democracy is wrong for China, because of the country’s limited resources. “With limited resources, you need unified planning under the control of a centralised power,” he wrote recently. Anyone who still believes the internet will inevitably democratise China might note that Zhu’s essay was a particular hit online, where it was posted on about 700 chatrooms.
Richard McGregor, Beijing.

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EGYPT - Mohammed Hassanein Heikal

No political commentator in the Arab world has ever come close to the iconic status enjoyed by Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, the Egyptian writer and one-time editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram newspaper.

At 83, Heikal may not have much influence on governments any more, but he remains the only political analyst capable of riveting Arab television viewers. Heikal’s career spans more than 60 years, including two decades in which he wielded enormous influence as a close confidant of president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

These days he presents a series of programmes on the Al-Jazeera network. In one of his broadcasts he traced the Arab world’s lack of weight in international politics to what he described as a “pact with the devil”, made by the region’s leaders in the early 1970s, when many governments, including Egypt’s, strengthened ties with the US at the expense of Arab solidarity.

Heikal’s link with political power was broken in the mid-1970s when he fell out with Nasser’s successor, Anwar El Sadat. However, his prolific writing and encyclopedic knowledge of both regional and international politics means that he remains a deeply respected figure.
Heba Saleh, Cairo.

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FRANCE - Nicolas Baverez

Dominique de Villepin, France’s prime minister, has coined a term for people like Nicolas Baverez: declinologues. Ever since the publication in 2003 of La France Qui Tombe (France in Free Fall), the 45-year-old historian and essayist has come to personify the idea that France is in decline. In books, essays and newspaper columns, Baverez argues that France’s political institutions are dysfunctional, its economy is in a mess, and its global influence is fading away.

“The crisis is not only economic, it is intellectual, moral, even spiritual because it profoundly affects the identity, values, and historic destiny of France,” he writes. His views are the subject of furious discussion and drive many Gaullist ministers to distraction. “There are journalists and a certain number of thinkers - Baverez prominent among them - who have made denigration of France a source of business,” fumes one minister. “What they are doing is scandalous.” But Baverez disagrees. By highlighting the “truth” about how far France has fallen behind the rest of the world, he is preparing the ground for radical change, embodied by Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading rightwing contender for the presidency, who has been calling for a “rupture” with the failed policies of the past.
John Thornhill, Paris.

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GERMANY - Hans-Ulrich Jorges

Hans-Ulrich Jorges is a rogue element in the polite and often clannish world of German political commentators.

His rivals may derive their authority from their proximity to decision makers, but the deputy editor and chief commentator of the mass-market Stern weekly prides himself on his lack of political friendships.

His Zwischenruf (Interruption) column is politically conservative with a liberal social twist; substantial yet often humorous. More intuitive than analytical, Jorges is readable and good at grasping the Zeitgeist.

In the run-up to last year’s election, he predicted not only the defeat of the incumbent, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, but his subsequent estrangement from the Social Democratic party.

Jorges may not be an insider, but he is well connected and a reliable source of information about who thinks what in Angela Merkel’s notoriously secretive left-right coalition.

But his soft spot for counter-intuitive views can sometimes come at the expense of consistency. While exasperated at the grand coalition’s lack of reformist ambition one week - “We want to see more than ‘little steps’, tactical fiddling and short-lived compromises” - he lavishes praise on its unspectacular style the next - “whoever calls it boring, cowardly, smallest-common-denominator politics could be wrong.”

But at least he can rarely be accused of being dull.
Bertrand Benoit, Berlin.

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INDIA - Thomas Friedman

In a country with at least a dozen major English-language newspapers and countless regional ones, it is hard for any individual columnist to claim a genuine national influence. Prem Shankar Jha of the Hindustan Times, Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express and M.J. Akbar of The Asian Age are among those who come close.

Strangely, however, it may be that it is an American writer - Thomas Friedman of The New York Times - who is lapped up most ardently by the country’s ruling elite.

His recent bestselling book, The World is Flat, was a hymn to India’s brilliant future in a fully inter-connected globalised world and made him for a time the country’s de facto chief publicist. His New York Times columns, which are regularly republished in Indian newspapers, provide readers with what must be a pleasant reminder of the book’s gushing tone. In one recent column he described India as a “beacon of tolerance and stability” (somewhat mystifyingly to those who follow Indian politics or communal passions).

“Call me biased,” he says, “but I have a soft spot for countries of one billion people, speaking a hundred different languages and practising a variety of religions, whose people hold regular free and fair elections.”

His appeal in India speaks to a significant shift in the tectonic plates of world politics. Once the guardian of the non-aligned movement, India is rapidly succumbing to the ardent courtship of the US. The world’s sole superpower is taking India as its new strategic mate and nobody does more to sugar the pill than Friedman.
Jo Johnson, New Delhi.

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INDONESIA - Goenawan Mohamad

Goenawan Mohamad is almost without peer in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation. He founded the news weekly Tempo, which led what little media fight there was against the regime of former President Suharto. More recently, he has turned his sights on America and its paradoxes.

Mohamad is a rare and versatile intellectual voice in the archipelago, as likely to write about Michael Jackson as Guantanamo Bay and Turgenev.

When US security guards stopped him for questioning at a tiny Missouri airport last year, convinced he was carrying TNT in a cake his wife had packed for him to take to relatives, US embassy officials back in Jakarta must have quietly groaned.

Mohamad has learned to veil his arguments when necessary. In a recent column about depicting God, following the Danish cartoon furore, he said God’s “regulations” were meant for man, not God, which meant man could bend them - a controversial comment in a society where religious literalists often rule debate.

But Mohamad tempered the thought by offering it in the form of a “profound question” posed by Jesus about working on the Sabbath: “Weren’t those laws for man, and not vice versa?” “These days,” said Mohamad, “people should hear that question once again.”
Shawn Donnan, Jakarta.

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IRAN - Hussein Shariatmadari

Hussein Shariatmadari is the editor-in-chief of Kayhan, the country’s main state-owned newspaper. Appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, Shariatmadari is a careful analyst of Iranian affairs.

He approved of last year’s landslide election victory of president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, which he felt reflected the ongoing appeal of the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s values. And when Ahmadi-Nejad stirred international uproar by calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, Shariatmadari said the new president had not said “anything new or unprecedented” to justify such tumult.

But he does not always agree with Iran’s leaders. He was a trenchant critic of negotiations begun under the previous government with the European Union over Iran’s nuclear programme: why talk to people who wanted to block Iran’s path to peaceful nuclear technology, he asked.

He has also attacked the “dangerous trap” in this year’s proposal to start talks between the US and Iran on stabilising Iraq. “As our late Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] once said, America has already done everything within its power against Islamic Iran,” he wrote. “If there is any hostile action it hasn’t yet done, the only reason is that it hasn’t been able to.”

Islamic Iran, he wrote last month, is the “banner-holder in the fight against global domination, a successful model for other movements seeking freedom and independence”. Far better, then, to improve relations with China, and with non-aligned and Islamic countries, than to waste time talking to those who want to deny Iran nuclear technology or even overthrow its regime.
Gareth Smyth, Tehran.

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Newspaper commentators don’t have a lot of impact in most of Iraq, where years of Ba’athist rule and tight media controls mean the press is widely mistrusted. Some writers stand out, such as Adnan Hussein of the pan-Arab London-based daily, Asharq Alawsat, who last year wrote that then-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s florid speaking style reminded him of a rawzakhon, a traditional storyteller who commemorates the death of Shia martyrs. The nickname stuck and Jaafari eventually had to step down, in part because other political groups simply couldn’t talk to him.

But religious figures are far more important than media commentators to most Iraqis, especially the Shia working classes for whom newspapers symbolise a state unable to keep the lights on, or a pan-Arab media that panders to Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

At Baghdad’s Buratha mosque, for example, thousands gather each Friday to hear the sermons of Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, who recently accused the Al-Jazeera television network of “shooting arrows of hate at the Iraqi people... guided by the Mossad”.

Print commentators have more influence in the Kurdish-controlled north, especially in the area ruled by former rebels from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. There, journalists such as Asos Hardi and Twana Osman, co-founders of the independent Hawlati weekly newspaper, have criticised the guerrillas-turned-governors and struck a chord with people tired of corruption and mismanagement. But press freedom has its limits: early this month both journalists received six-month suspended prison sentences after the regional prime minister sued them for publishing false information.
Steve Negus, Baghdad.

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ISRAEL - Akiva Eldar

The veteran columnist, Akiva Eldar, is one of Israel’s most prominent and controversial commentators. He has consistently argued that the country should seek a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, even though many Israelis have taken a more hardline position against the Palestinians since the start of the intifada in 2000.

“I get very nasty e-mails, especially from the US, with some suggesting I move to Ramallah!” says the 60-year-old.

His newspaper, the liberal Ha’aretz, is one of Israel’s lower-circulation dailies but its English-language website is read all over the world. Eldar is also a panelist on Army Radio’s current affairs show each morning, listened to by one million Israelis.

His comments inspire callers from across the political spectrum: “I get calls from politicians, mostly from the left when I criticise them. But sometimes from the Likud as well.”

He says Israel has a partner with whom it can work for peace in the form of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and is sceptical that the Islamic movement, Hamas, which runs the Palestinian Authority, can change. “I think Israel should talk to anyone who is willing to accept two states side by side,” he says. “It’s a waste of time to talk to someone who refuses your right to exist.”

Eldar believes in a negotiated solution to the conflict but has little to no faith in the present crop of politicians. “People of both sides have a clear idea of how to put an end to this disarray,” he said. “But I’ve never been so pessimistic.”
Sharmila Devi, Jerusalem

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JAPAN - Soichiro Tawara

A culture that prizes agreement above dissent is not exactly designed to produce scintillating commentators. Most of the best-regarded columns in Japan are anonymous, including Ten Sei Jingo (”Heavenly voice, human voice”), which appears each morning on the front page of Asahi newspaper. The column, the first stop for many of Asahi’s 8.3 million readers, is more gentle musings on the quirkiness of life than an expression of political conviction.

Perhaps the best-known personality columnist is Soichiro Tawara, a veteran of the airwaves, and an occasional dabbler in print. Brusque, direct, and with a gravelly voice, Tawara’s Sunday Project television programme is required viewing for anyone in politics. Each week he subjects a parade of politicians to bruising cross-examination (by Japanese standards, at least).

Tawara’s reputation for independence has not been damaged by his closeness to prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, in whom he has a touching faith as a crusader for clean politics. Like Koizumi, who heads the everlasting Liberal Democratic party but who is constantly threatening to smash it to pieces, Tawara’s political views are hard to pin down, for all his forthrightness. In his ambiguity, he is more typically Japanese than his blunt posturing might suggest.
David Pilling, Tokyo.

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KENYA - Louis Otieno and Wycliffe Muga

The ambitious young Louis Otieno is a prominent voice in Kenya, where he is a news anchor and television host. On Newsline, one of his two weekly shows, he grills public figures and presents a viewers’ phone-in, a format that has grown in popularity as Kenyan politics has opened up.

“It’s new for both ends, for the politicians who are not used to being put on a platform and being questioned, and for the Kenyan public who can ask questions,” says the 34-year-old presenter.

A more contentious figure is Wycliffe Muga, a columnist for the Daily Nation. He covers everything from wildlife to global affairs, and Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki, is a repeated target: “Of what use is it for the president to have a ‘hands-off’ approach when the country is being plundered by ‘hands-on’ thieves whom he is responsible for having placed in high office?”

The 45-year-old stuck his neck out again last year when he backed a British ambassador who had angered president Kibaki’s government by accusing its officials and ministers of “vomiting on the shoes” of foreign donors.

“I feel the Kenyan public is not very well informed about international issues,” says Muga. “It’s very easy to have anti-American or anti-British feelings, so I try to explain more the other perspective.”
Andrew England, Nairobi.

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NIGERIA - Dele Olojede

Some of Nigeria’s most pointed political commentary comes from two of the country’s literary giants, novelist Chinua Achebe and playwright Wole Soyinka. And it says something else about the state of the country’s media that its most influential journalist is neither a columnist nor a commentator, but an investigative reporter best known for the work he has done for a US newspaper, Newsday.

Dele Olojede won a Pulitzer prize for international reporting last year for his coverage of the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. “It is a situation scarcely imaginable anywhere, as if most Jewish survivors were compelled to remain in Germany immediately after the Holocaust, living cheek-by-jowl with their erstwhile neighbours,” he wrote.

His biggest story in his home country was a 1986 report in the Nigerian news magazine Newswatch, which resulted in the freeing of the internationally known musician, Fela Kuti, and the dismissal of the judge who sentenced him.

Based in Johannesburg, Olojede now wants to make an impact on post-military Nigeria’s press, which he says lacks quality and critical muscle. “There is a real disconnect between the media and public,” he says.
Dino Mahtani, Lagos.

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POLAND - Adam Michnik

Poland’s most influential columnist is undoubtedly Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the country’s leading dailies. Although he now writes rarely, his words still have an enormous impact. He made a crucial contribution to the end of communist rule in 1989 when he came up with the formula “Your President, Our Prime Minister”, which allowed the communists to retain control of the presidency while the first post-war non-communist government was formed.

Although at heart a leftist, Michnik strongly supported the shock therapy that turned Poland into a market economy. He was most influential in the early years of democracy, when his friends from Solidarity were in power. He is now seen as left of centre.

The country’s second-most influential columnist is Michnik’s opposite in just about every way - although the two are friends. Jerzy Urban, the former spokesman of the communist regime, is the editor of Nie, a weekly scandal sheet with an excellent record for scoops. Urban’s often malicious pen skewers Poland’s many holy cows, from the Solidarity movement to the Church and even the former Pope.
Jan Cienski, Warsaw.

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RUSSIA - Mikhail Leontiev

Just before Vremya, Russia’s flagship TV news broadcast, ends most nights, the neatly groomed presenter is replaced on screen by a bearded, dishevelled figure in sports jacket and T-shirt. This is Mikhail Leontiev, whose prime-time comment slot on state-owned Channel One is testament to the direct line many believe he has to the Kremlin.

For two decades Leontiev, 47, has been on a political odyssey that has transformed him from Soviet-era dissenter to 1990s liberal to a conservative nationalist and one of president Vladimir Putin’s most vocal supporters.

A journalist on two of Russia’s early independent newspapers, Leontiev went on to co-found Sevodnya (Today) as the “first real post-Soviet publication” in 1993. He became one of Russia’s most-quoted columnists - as an ardent supporter of liberal economic reform and critic of the first Chechen war.

By the mid-1990s, however, he was already warning of “mounting anti-Russian sentiment” in US policy. By decade’s end he was convinced Russia needed a strong hand to pull it out of its Yeltsin-era chaos - and he conducted a high-profile TV interview with Putin in 2000 that was widely seen to have helped secure the president’s victory.

Today Leontiev’s commentaries are shot through with suspicion of the west, and the need for Russia to be a strong, sovereign nation. “Boosting the authoritarian component is the only way to restore order,” he declared after the Beslan tragedy.
Neil Buckley, Moscow.

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SERBIA - Dragoljub Zarkovic

Certain themes crop up repeatedly among Serbian commentators: suffering, heroism and the nation’s destiny to be misunderstood by the rest of the world.

But Dragoljub Zarkovic, editor-in-chief of the weekly Vreme (Time) and frequent columnist in Belgrade’s leading daily newspaper, Politika, is an interesting exception.

Take the touchy subject of Kosovo, the breakaway ethnic-Albanian province that may finally achieve formal independence this year, after seven years of United Nations interim rule.

Conventional Serbian wisdom says western leaders are only backing Kosovo’s independence because they want a share of its mineral resources. But Zarkovic has reminded his readers of another perspective: “If the communists had not seized British shares in the Trepca [mining complex], Tony Blair would have defended the Serbian position in Kosovo.”

His take on Serbia’s future remains generally optimistic, however. Cynics and extreme nationalists who play on popular despair ought to read the latest reports from the buoyant Belgrade stock exchange, he says. For there they would “see what is deeper: our trepidation or our hope”.
Neil MacDonald, Belgrade.

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SOUTH AFRICA - Moeletsi Mbeki

Political commentators play a crucial role in South Africa’s young democracy, and President Thabo Mbeki himself publishes a rambling, often provocative weekly letter on the African National Congress website. However, the opinions of his younger brother Moeletsi arguably carry as much - if not more - clout.

The younger Mbeki is a businessman, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs and a former journalist. He doesn’t publish a regular column, but his opinions can become mini-news events. This is partly because he is the president’s brother, but he is also an independent thinker, important in a country where frank comment is often blunted by a perceived need for political correctness.

In 2003, Mbeki unleashed a noisy debate by describing Black Economic Empowerment (an attempt to make the economy reflect the country’s racial demographics) as a cynical ploy by white-controlled businesses to further their interests by co-opting politically connected black businessmen as shareholders. More recently, he has blamed rapacious elites for holding back development in Africa, claiming that the average African was worse off today than during the colonial era. He has also urged more South African support for democracy in Zimbabwe.

As one journalist wrote of him some time back, South Africans should be proud of thinkers “who are not too politically correct to say the emperor has no clothes, if the emperor is embarrassing us by roaming the streets stark naked”.
John Reed, Johannesburg.

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SOUTH KOREA - Kim Dae-joong

Most people think of South Korea’s former president when they hear the name Kim Dae-joong. But this also happens to be the name of the country’s most important columnist, the editor-in-chief of the conservative Chosun Ilbo, the largest newspaper in this nation of 48 million people.

Readers of the popular Sisa news magazine voted Kim the country’s most influential journalist for 13 years in a row from 1992. One of his most contentious columns appeared in 1980 when he described the 300,000 protesters who took part in a popular uprising in the city of Kwangju as “violent rioters”. (The protesters said he had not understood the rebellion and had upset their quest for democracy.)

The 66-year-old has annoyed more readers recently by urging support for the free trade agreement now being negotiated with the US (”The US is not an ‘object’ but a ‘means’. We can just make full use of it”). But he says his favourite column was one he wrote in 1984 about a measure ordering newsstand owners to put a red cross on any story that criticised the government.

“I’m so shamed and embarrassed but I can’t do much about it except laugh and think ‘Those guys are really good at finding out just one paragraph [of criticism],’” he wrote. One reader in particular noticed it: the authoritarian president at the time, Chun Doo-hwan, told him to take a year off and do some more study.
Woo Jae-yeon, Seoul.

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UNITED KINGDOM - Trevor Kavanagh

Britain has a glut of influential commentators. Richard Littlejohn, who recently left The Sun for the Daily Mail, has enormous populist appeal. Melanie Phillips, also of the Mail, has built a large following by castigating authorities for their moral and governance failures. The Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer can claim to have been publicly attacked by Tory leader David Cameron (whom he once called a “PR spiv”) - though this may mean Heffer’s influence is waning.

Of the leftwing crowd in The Guardian, Martin Kettle is magisterial; Jonathan Freedland is insightful at home and abroad; Timothy Garton Ash is an incisive and liberal voice on Europe and beyond. Simon Jenkins is the most elegant and distinctive, but Polly Toynbee, who spans both “old” and “new” Labour, is probably the paper’s most influential writer.

The most powerful journalist in Britain, however, is Trevor Kavanagh, for many years the political editor of The Sun and now its associate editor. Kavanagh is believed to be behind The Sun shifting its support from Tony Blair to the Tories. Two years ago he was leaked the contents of the controversial report into the death of government scientist David Kelly, and he was also named Britain’s eighth most influential media figure (well ahead of The Sun’s editor but behind proprietor Rupert Murdoch).

Kavanagh rules because of the size of his readership, his own industry and a style that destroyed the boundaries between reporting and commentary.
John Lloyd, London.

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UNITED STATES - Charles Krauthammer

A syndicated columnist with the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer has influenced US foreign policy for more than two decades. He coined and developed “The Reagan Doctrine” in 1985 and he defined the US role as sole superpower in his essay, “The Unipolar Moment”, published shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Krauthammer’s 2004 speech “Democratic Realism” set out a framework for tackling the post 9/11 world, focusing on the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

A trained psychiatrist, Krauthammer writes with wit and occasional venom. Here’s a Krauthammer intro: “Say what you will about Bashar Assad, dictator of Syria and perhaps the dimmest eye doctor ever produced by British medical schools, but subtle he is not.”

Lately, his proclamation of the “dawn of a glorious, delicate revolutionary movement in the Middle East” looks less prescient than a year ago, but he is a long-term thinker.

Runner-up to Krauthammer is Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. A gifted populariser, he is most fluent when writing about the Middle East and is an impassioned advocate of globalisation. But he can sound facile and smug. He does not “get” Europe and his francophobia is grating.

Maureen Dowd, also of the Times, is often achingly funny but occasionally crabby. Paul Krugman was brave and brilliant after 9/11 when few dared challenge President Bush’s “war on terror”, but now he’s mono-tonal.

Among conservatives, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard is the biggest hitter. And don’t forget the iconoclastic Jon Stewart, the faux TV news anchor on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
Lionel Barber, Financial Times editor and former US managing editor.

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