A Veteran Journalist's View of Today's World

This is an excerpt from Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia (Talisman Publishers, hardback, 384 pp., S$42) by John McBeth, who among other things spent a quarter-century as the longest-serving correspondent for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. McBeth looks with trepidation at how standards have fallen in today's world of journalism. The book is available in local bookshops.

…While this book may necessarily be a memoir, I would like to think it is more a reflection of the lives of a generation of journalists who came to Asia on a wing and a prayer – and in my case by ship – and stayed on as fascinated witnesses to a region going through historic political and economic change. We all have a story to tell. We have also had a lot of great times that will never be repeated.

Most foreign journalists who come to Asia today already work for the wire services or established publications, even if some are a shadow of what they once were. They are often married, sometimes with kids. They have houses, cars, offices and assistants as part of the package. They are here today and gone tomorrow, ticking off another box on their rise up the promotional ladder.

It is that which sets them apart from those of us who have lived the story and made Asia our home. In many cases, it happened more by accident than design. The quarter century I spent on the Far Eastern Economic Review, longer than any other correspondent, only reinforced that process because of the opportunities it presented to plumb the depths of each and every story.

For the generations of people who read the Review, its slow lingering death at the hands of corporate America has left a gaping hole in English coverage of the region that has never been filled. Still, it is better to look back more with pleasure than in pain. As one of my colleagues wrote to me not long ago: "We should celebrate the correct choices and kind hand of fate that have permitted us to enjoy the pleasures and witness the perils of life in Asia."

I am not a war correspondent and I have not had the experiences of many of my more illustrious peers, who covered Vietnam and other conflicts around the world. On more than one occasion during the writing of this book I asked myself why I was doing it, given the comparatively uneventful life I have led. But what kept me going was the knowledge that journalism is not just about wars and, if nothing else, I am one of a `dying breed in Asia and in journalism in general. The job will never be the same. It can't be. That's how much the news business and print journalism in particular has changed and continues to change. In my opinion for the worse.

There was a time, certainly in Vietnam in the 1960s and in Bangkok in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the press corps was a unique institution, where lifelong friendships were forged and what we did was both interesting and full of enterprise and adventure. These days, that same camaraderie only reveals itself when one of us dies and all the old stories are retold, always amusing and always studiously irreverent. In this new age of budget cuts, clean living, correct language and laptops much of that has simply disappeared in the space of two decades.

When young people today tell me that they want to be print journalists, I feel almost pity. Reading the printed word these days comes a poor second to television and the internet, newspapers and magazines are dying all around us, and no one seems to have worked out a formula for commercial success on the web. For some reason, the so-called content providers are always at the bottom of the heap, yet if they are doing their jobs and are considered to be well informed, everyone wants to hear their opinions. Surely that is worth more than the almost laughable word rates they offer these days.

In a 2009 interview, former London Sunday Times editor Harold Evans decried the way pressmen are being turned into paupers. "It's not the delivery vehicle that matters," he said. "What matters is the journalism."

Very true. Objectivity and balance, the two factors I feel are more important than anything in my trade, have undergone a serious deterioration in recent years. Too many news stories are opinionated or carry an obvious bias. Adding to that are what I call the 'cross-dresser', the print journalists who appear as guests on televised talkathons where they put their political prejudices on show. Television has been our main enemy. Brought up reading and listening to the radio, even I am still fascinated how we can see things happening on the other side of the world in real time.

But most of the cable news networks have forsaken objectivity entirely and seem to favor entertainment over real news, ideology over reality. Most Internet sites are only interested in comment, unencumbered by rules about verification and sourcing. Bloggers, who give new meaning to the expression 'talk is cheap,' would have nothing to talk about if it was not for the costly enterprise of news-gathering and investigative reporting.

In the years to come, financial markets are going to be reacting more and more to rumour with all the implications that entails. It has been difficult to put the last four decades in any sort of chronological order, so chapters that begin in the 1970s and 1980s may ramble on into the following two decades. Mostly, this book is about the amazing characters I have met along the way, good and bad, but never indifferent.

Unknowingly in many cases, these same people guided my choice of the best stories I have covered in Asia, stories which form the backbone of what is only a stop-start narrative. You will never have heard of some of them or, better still, will not be able to look them up on Google. The internet should never take precedence over a warm body in gathering information. But, used wisely, it is a remarkable search tool which has also allowed me to stay in touch with people I came to rely on as sources and whose friendships and knowledge I still value more than anything else with the exception, of course, of my wife and soulmate, Yuli Ismartono…