A Reporter’s Life in Asia

A veteran journalist’s account of reporting from Southeast Asia offers a refreshing and honest account of the region.


From the outset, John McBeth’s memoir of a working life in Asia is a terrific read. His candid accounts ranging from incidents involving politically correct American media bosses, to the whims of political autocrats who have ruled the region, are as refreshing as they are honest.

Throughout Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia, McBeth sees himself as very much a part of the region’s old guard of journalism. Thai coups, North Korea’s nuclear programme, Cambodian refugees and terrorist plots in Indonesia are all tales that go hand-in-hand with great friendships.

People like Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis, New Zealand reporter Kate Webb, Dutch photographer Hugh van Es and English scribe Donald Wise are familiar names to many who have worked Southeast Asia, whether inside the media or not.

McBeth is also well-armed,and takes steady aim at the likes of celebrity journalist John Pilger,who as an Australian working in London has scored himself a regular mealticket by writing about Asia.I particularly liked the way he singlesout certain academics and journalists who basically became apologists for Pol Pot despite the overwhelming evidence of atrocities committed there by his cohorts and the Khmer Rouge.

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McBeth learned his trade on a local newspaper in his native New Zealand, then caught a ship to Southeast Asia in 1970 where he initially worked for the Bangkok Post and then the Far Eastern Economic Review, as a correspondent from Bangkok, Seoul, Manila and finally Jakarta.

The Review closed six years ago, and since then he has been a regular columnist for The Straits Times in Singapore.

On Thailand and the strife of recent years, he says the powerholderstherehave relied on the king as a convenient arbiter for far too long.

‘As a result, a country that has historically prided itself on compromise and bending with the wind to fend off colonial powers has never developed the sort of institutional mechanisms to deal with its own internal problems,’he writes.‘Given the dramatic events of early 2010, the myth of a united people, so central to the ideology of the Thai state, has dissolved into the reality of serious social and ethnic divisions.’

By comparison,Indonesia has done well in its transition to a democracy over the past 10 years. But reservations persist,particularly in regards to the impunity enjoyed by the country’s elite families and those linked to the military.

‘While the new legislators are generally younger and better educated,they have shown by their behaviour that they are little different from their predecessors. To me that is the most disturbing trend of all,’he writes.

My only criticism of Reporter is McBeth’s stereotyping of young journalists as somehow not being of quite the same calibre as he and his peers,whilehis distaste for the digital era has him sounding a bit too much like a grumpy old man, which of course he isn’t.

In his own words: ‘I’ve always frowned on the common perception of a reporter as hard-nosed and cynical. Lose your humanity, lose your ability to shed a few tears and you also forget how to empathise. We should all be able to write from the heart.’

Reporterwill find an instant audience for anyone interested in Southeast Asia and the media. But it should also find wider interest among the many who consider themselves students of the region.