Opinion & Analysis

John McBeth: 40 Years Covering Asia

As we lament the state of Australia and New Zealand's capability to engage with Asia, we should pay heed to one indispensable means of acquiring it: good, factual news reporting on our region, easily accessible to any interested reader. 

It is perplexing to observe that as Asia inexorably grows more vital to our prosperity and security, the resources invested in the task of publicly recording its affairs has visibly declined.

News bureaux have closed, the once bustling corridors of buildings that housed foreign media are quiet, the ghosts of newsmen and women past hover over empty bar stools at foreign correspondents’ clubs; worse, big stories are covered at a distance as larger swathes of the region are left to fewer and fewer reporters, and ‘click bait’ triviality jostles for space online with stories that matter.

A reminder of the need to invest more in our coverage of the region – and how thin the coverage and capability has become in both the ‘legacy’ media and its newer online manifestations – was the passing on 7 December of the great New Zealand-born foreign correspondent, John McBeth. 

McBeth dedicated his life to reporting Asia. His journey ought to be an inspiration for another generation of correspondents (and, more importantly, readers) to pursue the richness, the drama, the fascination and, of course, the great significance of the Asian story.

McBeth arrived in the early 70s in a Thailand that, along with its Southeast Asian neighbours, was in the early stages of a journey to become one of Asia’s economic powerhouses, juggling the geopolitical vagaries of the Cold War, and facing the societal challenges that come with adjusting to modernity. Asia would be home for the rest of his life.

In Bangkok, he found work on a string of wire services and publications before settling at The Far Eastern Economic Review, then the pre-eminent publication covering the region’s political and business affairs.

In those years, Bangkok was the natural base for a thriving international media corps documenting the disaster bequeathed to Indo China by the wars fought by the French and Americans in Vietnam, manifested especially in the terror next door in Cambodia. McBeth was among the first to tell the-then scarcely believable stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities, journeying to border camps to listen to refugee accounts of death and survival.

Thailand offered its own slate of crimes to record.  There was the macabre trail of 14 bodies left by the notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj. And political crimes too in the string of coups and attempted coups – McBeth’s close friend, the Australian cameraman Neil Davis, was killed in one in Bangkok in September 1985.

Posted by the Review to South Korea, McBeth was witness to the rise of democracy and the fierce tear-gas saturated street battles between students and the security forces of Chun Doo-hwan. He went on to cover the mercurial Philippines scene following the end of the 21-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

This regional odyssey – coinciding with the post-war leap in Asian development and stop-start democratisation – finally took him to Indonesia to observe the last brazen years of Suharto’s New Order. The end of Suharto was foretold in the stories of freebooting, often linked to the first family, like the world’s biggest gold find, Busang in the jungles of East Kalimantan, that turned out to be pure fiction. Through the downfall of Suharto and beyond, McBeth stayed the course in documenting Indonesia during its political and economic transformation over a period of three decades.

In all the years living Asia, he never stopped interviewing, observing and writing, save a few months when he was recuperating from the loss of a leg put down to smoking (a habit he promptly discarded). Even after the traumatic amputation, he was anxious to pick-up a notebook, and fretted the bosses might not let him do it. He even offered to take a pay cut to get back in the field. He would say happiness for him – or at least a sense of purpose – came with knowing he had a story to work on in the morning.

McBeth had the ebullient persona of the correspondent of his era; over lunch, he could be a humorous storyteller and acerbic critic of the business he was in, but he also exhibited humility about the craft and his own contribution.  His memoir was deliberately entitled “Reporter: Fifty Years of Covering Asia”. He eschewed the grander label “correspondent”, and he didn’t covet awards or tailor his reporting to suit the taste of award judges.

Most importantly, he tried to tell is as it was. He wasn’t a crusader. He acquired an eye for a good story. He dug into the facts, checked them, then wrote what he found. And he was fair. 

This can mean going against the tide. Before the 2019 presidential elections in Indonesia, he wrote in the Asia Times:

 “Facilitated by a largely unquestioning media, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government has become a master at the game of smoke and mirrors, which in simplistic form is all about convincing the public that things are happening when they really aren’t.”

But when this unleashed a wave of hate from the Widodo legions online, the President’s own consigliere, Luhut Pandjaitan, came to McBeth’s defence.

 This points to other ingredients of success: The patient building of contact networks – something fly-in, fly-out correspondents don’t do; an unswerving commitment to the story and living it; and the value of having a reputation for practicing fairness. It was no accident that many an Australian ambassador sought McBeth’s insights.

In an era where opinion and supposition abound on paper and online, these look like forgotten or dying virtues. Even the newswires are given over to more opinion and commentary to compete with the cacophony of conjecture on the likes of "\'X'.

For Australia – indeed for the English-language media broadly – more troubling is the general retreat in on-the-ground news coverage of the region when our need to know has rarely been greater. Venerable publications based in the region like the Review and Asiaweek shut their doors long ago.  Among the Australian media, only the ABC retains a large network of full-time correspondents, and it is yet to return a correspondent to the People’s Republic of China. More Australian media resources are spent on North America and Europe. New Zealand media retains a similar Euro-centric perspective, with not a single correspondent based in an Asian capital.

John McBeth was in a line of great journalists to venture to Asia in the 60s and 70s for whose dedication readers can be enduringly grateful. They included fellow New Zealanders, Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the Vietnam War (and who is sometimes described as “the world’s greatest war correspondent”) and the late Kate Webb, intrepid and indefatigable, who experienced the novelty of reading her own obituary after being presumed dead in Cambodia when in fact she had been captured by Viet Cong forces who protected her from the Khmer Rouge.

Arnett once described Kiwis as “born risk-takers”, and that is true of this remarkable trio. We need to revive that spirit of adventure. We need the commitment to the story it implied. But, more than that, we need investment on both sides of the Tasman in the reporting necessary to understand our dynamic region.

 Donald Greenlees is a senior adviser to Asialink at the University of Melbourne and a former Asia correspondent for a variety of international media. He is based in Bangkok.


+ banner image from the cover of John McBeth's "Reporter: 40 Years Covering Asia" published by Talisman Publishing 

 - Asia Media Centre