BOOK REVIEW The good old days Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia by John McBeth
Reviewed by Robert Tilley
A veteran London Daily Telegraph reporter and Middle East expert once confessed in print that he only felt really comfortable in the company of other journalists. It's a sentiment secretly shared by many of his colleagues, particularly that elite of globe-trotting journalists who can describe themselves as "foreign correspondents".
Although they all write for a living they belong to an exclusive chattering class that will enliven the quietest bar with anecdotes gleaned from years of traveling a region or the entire world in
pursuit of the stories that fill newspapers, magazines and the air waves.
Their memoirs invariably make good reading, and John McBeth's,Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia , is no exception. But how could 40 years in journalism prove to be otherwise?
McBeth shuns the elitist term "foreign correspondent" and describes himself disarmingly as a "reporter". But he's not alone - one of my old Daily Telegraph editors, William (Bill) Deedes, insisted to the end of his illustrious career that he was "only" a reporter. And to support that claim he continued to report from some of the world's crisis areas, including Darfur, until he turned 90. He and so many other practitioners of the craft, like McBeth, fell at an early age under the spell cast by the world's second-oldest profession (no prizes for knowing the oldest). Journalism held them in thrall as effectively as any of the opiates that formed the "stuff" of so many of McBeth's dispatches from Southeast Asia.
In his 40 years reporting from four Asian countries - a quarter of a century working for the respected but now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review - McBeth covered five coups in Thailand and seismic shifts of power in Indonesia. He witnessed the "secret war" in Laos and reported from the Thai-Cambodian border on the Khmer Rouge massacres, which he notes were being played down at the time by some of his colleagues and left-leaning academics. Burma, now known as Myanmar, provided him with a "flow of fascinating stories" - even though on his first visit to Rangoon he couldn't afford the air fare to Mandalay and "whiled away the time in the capital".
Journalists are indeed working while appearing to be whiling away their time in exotic locations, and McBeth confesses he picked up some of his best stories and contacts in bars - particularly Bangkok's Grand Prix.
"Journalists these days laugh disbelievingly when I tell them I have got some of my best news tips in bars and in the Grand Prix in particular," he writes. You're wrong there, though, John - there's a whole generation of us out there who'll admit that their one unnamed source for a great story was the guy sitting on the next bar stool.
There is some truth, however, in McBeth's nostalgic evocation of an earlier era in journalism, when reporters appeared to be cut from different, rougher cloth. "These days, for one reason or another, they don't get the same fun out of the job as we did," McBeth writes. "Frankly, it is also hard to develop the same level of trust with potential sources over a cup of decaffeinated coffee or a Diet Coke."
As McBeth approached his quarter-century with the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), other, even more insidious changes were under way that would change the world of journalism forever. And they were to ultimately kill the magazine that McBeth, in a final, valedictory chapter, calls "my life".
Working for the FEER, writes McBeth, was "the ultimate in job satisfaction in one of the most dynamic regions in the world until an American media giant called Dow Jones killed it off". The news magazine Asiaweek had gone the same way three years previously, through a "coup de grace" administered by another American multinational, Time Warner.
When Dow Jones took control of the FEER in 1987, writes McBeth, "the magazine was drawn inexorably into a corporate meat grinder that ultimately impacted on its viability as a business ... our new masters seemed to play to our weaknesses, rather than our strengths".
Dow Jones, with its news wire service and its flagship Asian Wall Street Journal, seemed from the first to have a hidden agenda, and 17 years after the takeover of the FEER, after a series of consolidations and makeovers, the axe finally fell.
In 2004, the FEER's staff were called together in Hong Kong and told of the magazine's demise in a statement, heavy with cynicism, by Dow Jones chief executive Peter Kann: "I believe the era of regional news weeklies, even excellent ones like the Review, is nearing an end given the many other available sources of daily and more frequent news and analysis."
The closure of the FEER enabled Dow Jones to concentrate its resources on the Asian Wall Street Journal and a trimmed down monthly version of the magazine that ran on a staff of two. But, says McBeth, "without the people and culture who always make a magazine, it was never going to work".
Dow Jones closed that version of FEER last year in what at least one former FEER correspondent referred to as a "mercy killing". McBeth's somewhat embittered account of the death of the FEER is one of the most interesting and important chapters in a book packed with journalistic incident.
More than 20 chapters describe in absorbing detail some of the major stories that shook the region during McBeth's 40 years and in which he was involved either directly as a reporter or as an informed observer.
The Vietnam War passed McBeth by because, by his own admission, he was no war correspondent. But most other regional events of the years 1964-2004 are covered with admirable attention to detail and usually in a talented reporter's tight prose style, stripped of superfluous color and self-promotion.
He covered five coups in Thailand, and was perhaps the first reporter to witness the dramatic end to the failed 1977 attempt by General Chalard Hiranyasiri to seize power. Carrying film back to the UPI office in Bangkok for a Thai colleague, McBeth found himself caught between government troops and rebels. "Suddenly stuck in no-man's-land, I broke into a sprint. Then I turned to watch an amazing spectacle.
"A loyalist lieutenant strode purposefully into the middle of the street, waved his arms above his head and placed his M-16 rifle on the ground. After a few long moments, a rebel officer 300 meters away did the same. Then the two walked towards each other, like gunfighters in a Western, while we stood there holding our breaths. When the pair finally came together, they fell into a spontaneous embrace. The growing crowd of Thai civilians standing around gave them both a warm round of applause. It was an extraordinary end to the day-long crisis."
This powerful piece of reporting alone excuses the book's occasional lapses - a wrong date, an irritating trail of dangling participles and some other smaller solecisms that pop up here and there. Journalists, however, have traditionally had little time for grammarians and only contempt for pedants. Priority must necessarily go to the task of getting accurate news out as quickly as possible - and John McBeth is clearly a master of that craft.
Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia by John McBeth. Talisman Publishing Pte Ltd, Singapore (2011). ISBN 978-981-08-7364-6. 372 pages
Robert Tilley was for 25 years correspondent in Germany and Eastern Europe for The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, London, covering major events of the so-called "Cold War", including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the restoration of democracy in the countries of Eastern Europe and the start of the civil war in former Yugoslavia.
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