Rodney Tasker, 1945-2015

Rodney Tasker’s name may now mean little to the current generation of journalists and politicians in Asia. But for 25 years from the mid-1970s, Tasker, chief correspondent of the now-defunct Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, was well-known to leaders and media throughout Southeast Asia. Tasker, who died on March 24 after a long illness, was called “the quintessential foreign correspondent” by many.

Tasker was well liked by both politicians and colleagues although his reporting from the Philippines resulted in the filing of a trumped-up criminal libel suit in 1978 after he wrote a critical article about the San Miguel Corporation and how then-Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile manipulated its stock ownership through his ACCRA law firm. According to Sheilah Ocampo Kalfors, who took over the Manila bureau, an enraged Enrile filed the suit, with orders to arrest Tasker and seize FEER’s assets. Tasker was out of the country at the time and was unable to return for period of time in the face of possible arrest at the airport.

“He was a fantastic person loved by many, a very supportive and protective boss and a loyal friend,” she said.

Tasker then moved on to Bangkok but still covered events in Manila and elsewhere with a regional portfolio. In 2002, the Thai government temporarily revoked his visa after he and another FEER reporter, Shawn Crispin, reported on tensions between the king and then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Tasker was at the heart of reporting political change and making sense of issues at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other international meetings. He excelled because he was both a fair and diligent reporter whose shorthand was so good he didn’t need tape recorders, and whose unaffected charm put ministers and politicians at ease.

“Rodney was a quiet hero to many hacks, including me,” wrote Nate Thayer, a correspondent in Cambodia for the Far Eastern Economic Review. “He was born to be a foreign correspondent. He taught me how to do it right, both as a person and a journalist. Rodney embodied that special recipe of the truly great journalists where there was no distinction between the two. I am one of many from his true family of colleagues who miss him terribly already, and am a better journalist and man because Rodney graced me by allowing me to be part of his life. He was loved and respected by everyone who crossed his path. I am one of them.”

Tasker was personally liked by many officials who disliked what he had to report and was a drinking buddy of several of them. His contacts in the Marcos cabinet and among the Thai elite were unique among foreign journalists.

“I met Rodney soon after arriving in Jakarta for the BBC in 1987,”said Michael Vatikiotis, who later went on to become the editor of the Review. “I recall first getting to know him over beers on a train ride to Bandung. As a young reporter he took me under his wing and showed me how it was done. He was instrumental in recruiting me for the Review and we later worked together in the Bangkok Bureau. Rodney had a way of nurturing, using a mix of friendly banter, collegial collaboration and caustic comment. He was never one to hold back on what he thought of your work, which I appreciated. ‘Crap story’ was often the greeting of the morning. I simply wouldn't have had the career I have had without his help and advice. I'm not the only one.”

Never an ideologue, his unpleasant run-ins with Enrile and Thaksin were a remarkable achievement for one in the thick of reporting for so long for a weekly magazine that was both feared and admired. He was also the president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in 2001 and 2002.

Whether on hand at Manila airport when Benigno S. Aquino, the father of the current president, was gunned down on his return to the Philippines in 1983, reporting the development of ASEAN or the tortuous negotiations leading to the end of the Cambodian conflict, Tasker, a British subject trained on English provincial newspapers, showed the value of honest coverage of regional issues. As such he contributed to ASEAN leaders, and their national audiences, understanding of each other. Journalism shorn of national prejudices has always been a scarce commodity and he excelled at it.

His death at the age of 70 in Thailand is a reminder of the narrow perspective of so much current reporting, and the importance of institutional memory in understanding today’s events.