Last week, the media operator and Huffington Post co-founder joined the board of the taxi giant. So how will the huge online news site reconcile this apparent conflict of interests?
For a busy woman, Arianna Huffington, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, is a surprisingly committed champion of sleep. Not only has she developed a pre-bed ritual that features a candlelit bath with Epsom salts, writing in a diary what shes grateful for in life, and changing into a silk nightgown, she has also written a new book on the subject, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.
But into this perfectly sleepy world of expensive soundproof windows, organic cotton sheets and pillows containing soporific hops has come the kind of problem that could cause a less becalmed woman to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
For Huffington finds herself in a thorny position of conflict. Last week, Uber, the global taxi giant, announced that she had joined its board of directors. For a woman who lectures against too much work, that may be a little tricky, but thats not the problem.
Whats troubling is that Uber is a company that, by nature of its aggressive market strategy, attracts a certain amount of negative news coverage. The question now is will that find its way on to the Huffington Post site, given that this self-styled guru of the bedroom has planted one foot in the multibillion dollar-rated Ubers boardroom?
Early last month, one of the Huffington Posts reporters alerted her colleagues to a story in the New York Times about an Uber driver who took a nap while his passenger took over and became the subject of a high-speed police chase. But the reporter received a note from a senior editor informing her that they wouldnt be linking to the story because Huffington Post was partnering with Uber on our drowsy driving campaign.
As part of the campaign, Uber customers stood the chance of sharing a cab with Huffington while she conducted a sleep tutorial, a prospect that perhaps not all of us would find relaxing. And in any case, what better way to bring attention to the perils of drowsy driving than the story of a drowsy driver who hands the wheel to a fare, who happens not to have a driving licence and proceeds to accelerate to 86mph, while he catches up on some shut-eye? But the story didnt run.
The Huffington Post subsequently issued a press release insisting that the editorial decision had nothing to do with Huffingtons Uber appointment and that, indeed, she was entirely ignorant of the affair. Perhaps she was, yet the situation highlights the complications that come with the mutual back-scratching set-up of many corporate boardrooms, particularly when media figures are involved.
Even in the most benign circumstances, a conflict of interest is bound to occur at some point. And whatever accusations have been made against Uber, they have seldom, if ever, involved the description benign. As the Washington Post put it, the episode should end any fanciful thinking that somehow a news organisation can cover the news with a conflicted boss.
The safest policy, of course, would be for senior media figures to avoid boardrooms altogether, unless reporting on corruption and poor corporate governance. But safety first has not been the approach that has led Huffington to earn the title as the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus.
Born Ariadne-Anna Stassinopolos in Athens, she moved to the UK as a 16-year-old and studied economics at Cambridge, where she became the first foreign and only third female president of the Cambridge Union. A gifted networker, she befriended people such as John Selwyn Gummer and David Mellor and even entertained the prime minister, Edward Heath.
This was the early 1970s, when feminism was first being adopted by a generation of aggrieved young women. But not Stassinopolos. In 1973, she wrote The Female Woman, her riposte to Germaine Greers The Female Eunuch and an attack on the womens liberation movement, which, she argued, would transform only the lives of women with strong lesbian tendencies.
Her life had been transformed two years earlier by meeting the journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin on the BBC TV classical music quiz Face the Music. She was 21. At 43, he was twice her age but, as wits noted, half her height. She fell in love and he became her cultural mentor, overseeing her writing. But nine years later, with Levin refusing to have children, she broke off the relationship and moved to New York, leaving behind the parochial concerns of little England and set about becoming an Upper East Side socialite.
It was one of many striking transformations that have shaped Huffingtons life. In the years since, shes undergone more iterations than the iPhone. In 1985, she met the Texan billionaire Michael Huffington, whom she married the following year. They had two children and moved to California for his political career. But they divorced in 1997, and a year later he disclosed that he was bisexual.
It was during the 90s and her marriage to Huffington that she first made a national impact in the US, particularly during her Republican husbands unsuccessful bid to join the US Senate. At that stage of her life, she was an unambiguous rightwinger. In a revealing profile, the New Yorker referred to her as a Republican Spice Girl and an endearingly ditzy right-wing gal-about-town. In 1998, she set up her first website, resignation.com, which called on Bill Clinton to stand down as president following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But by then her transformation was already underway. She had quit the Republican party in 1996, recognising, she later said, that government needed to be more active.
Her next venture was Arianna Online, which grew out of her syndicated newspaper columns. Then in 2005, with Kenneth Lerer and Jonah Peretti, and the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, she set up the Huffington Post.
The site became a platform for thousands of bloggers, none of whom was paid. In 2011, the website was sued by the political activist Jonathan Tasini on behalf of these uncompensated bloggers. The suit was eventually dismissed, and the bloggers received nothing. However, Huffington has certainly prospered.
That same year, she sold the website to AOL for $315m. She has never been troubled by the disparity between her wealth and the non-payment of many Huffington Post contributors. As she told this newspaper two years ago: Nobody made these people blog. They blog because it has a value to them. They want the distribution. They want to be heard. Dont we all, though some of us wouldnt be offended by a little payment too. Notwithstanding her reluctance to redistribute the Huffington Posts profits to its contributors, Huffingtons politics are said to have moved steadily leftwards since the end of her marriage, though it may be more accurate to say that the Republican party has moved steadily rightwards. She voiced her disillusionment in Pigs at the Trough, the ninth of her 15 books, which took aim at George W Bush.
Nowadays, with her wealth and social position firmly established, she proposes a more holistic approach to life. A recent book, Thrive, laid claim to a Third Metric. It argued that the first two metrics money and power were not enough in life, for a person also needed to create a life of wellbeing, wisdom and wonder. Shes always had a spiritual side, going back to her Levin period, when they both flirted with the Bhagwan Rajneesh. But her more recent commitment to yoga and mindfulness came after she fell over several years ago and cracked a cheekbone as a consequence of overwork and lack of sleep.
Ironically, the criticism Thrive received echoed her own of womens liberation: just as she suggested it only worked for lesbians, many felt it was a book whose insights were only really relevant to millionaire businesswomen.Perhaps her new book will have a more universal appeal. After all, even those of us who lack soundproof windows and hop-infused pillows still appreciate a good nights kip. And one tip from Huffingtons life for a restful night is not to suffer regret. She never looks back, she says. Nor does she look forward. She just tries to be here, now, whether thats in the boardroom, in the bedroom or, depending on your luck or lack of it, next to you in the passenger seat of an Uber cab.
THE HUFFINGTON FILE
Born Ariadne-Anna Stassinopolos in Athens, 15 July 1950, to a journalist, Konstantinos, and his wife, Elli, who devoted herself to realising her daughters dream to study at Cambridge University.
Best of Times Building the Huffington Postinto one of the worlds most successful online news aggregators. It was sold to AOL in 2011 for $315m.
Worst of times When she was 36 her longed-for first child was still-born five months into her pregnancy. I had never known a pain like this, she later wrote.
What she says Everything that happened in my life from my children to being here with you now, happened because a man wouldnt marry me, a reference to her relationship with the late Bernard Levin.
What others say The most ruthless, unscrupulous, and ambitious person Id met in 30 years in national politics. Ed Rollins, her ex-husbands former political agent.