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April 2, 2009

Journalist of the year Gillian Tett: ‘Financial crisis was once in a century opportunity’

By Owen Amos

The acronym-strewn world of finance can be daunting. Not, though, for Gillian Tett – as well as knowing her FTSE from her FSA, the British Press Awards journalist of the year speaks Tajik, the language of Tajikistan.

It was in the former Soviet state, which borders Afghanistan and China, that Tett became a journalist.

She lived there when it was part of the Soviet Union, while studying for a PhD in anthropology from Cambridge. When war broke out as the Soviet Union broke up, she began freelancing.

‘There was a brutal war, and I was writing about human rights,’she told Press Gazette.

‘One thing led to another, I completed the PhD, and joined the FT graduate training scheme in 1993.”

At the FT, she was initially a foreign correspondent. ‘My background was entirely in cultural studies; my goal was to become a war reporter,’she said.

‘That’s originally what I was. I thought the only thing that mattered was politics and diplomatic reporting, and cultural studies.

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‘On the training programme, I was a foreign correspondent originally, then put on the foreign exchange team. I thought it was my penance.”

‘Financial jargon is like learning Tajik’

With a background in hard-to-master languages, financial jargon proved trouble-free. ‘Although it seems to be totally impenetrable, it’s just language,’she said. ‘It was like going to Tajikistan and learning Tajik, which I did.”

Tett was soon as hooked on the financial world as she had been on international affairs. ‘I soon learned the way money goes round the world is really, really important,’she said.

‘You can’t hope to understand things like politics, international relations, even wars, if you don’t look at where the money goes.”

Five years ago, after editing the FT’s Lex column, she moved to the capital markets team. It was not, she admitted, a glamorous move.

‘Some people thought the capital markets team was a bit of a backwater,’she said. ‘I was pregnant at the time and people maybe thought ‘She’s on the mummy track’. But I thought there was a story there.”

‘Once in a century opportunity’

How right she was. As the world economy heated up, before burning out, Tett and her team were at the centre of what she calls a ‘once in a century opportunity”.

‘There was a whole team there that got really excited about the story,’she said. ‘People looked at us as if we were completely mad – but we had an editor [Lionel Barber] who was completely supportive.

‘On one level it was really exciting – it became really easy to get stories on the front page. But we were also shattered; completely aghast at what was happening. We sat there and thought ‘Oh my goodness, this is really appalling’.

‘But one of things that makes financial and business journalism so exciting is not even the experts have a clue what’s going on right now. Suddenly people are looking at the journalists for explanation and answers, to join the dots.”

The British Press Award – which followed Tett winning BPA business journalist of the year in 2008 – was, she insisted, for the team, not just her.

‘I was completely and utterly shocked,’she said. ‘I was also absolutely thrilled – and this sounds cheesy – for the whole team. This really was a team effort.

‘It also shows financial investigative journalism matters. For too many years financial and business journalism has been seen as geeky and anoraky – but the way money goes round the world really matters.”

Tett’s book about the financial crisis, Fool’s Gold – subtitled ‘How unrestrained greed corrupted a dream, shattered global markets and unleashed a catastrophe’– is out this month.

As for the future, she said: ‘I just really want to explain how money goes round the world.”

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