The lost world of a wild tribe
A stopover en route to Fleet St turned into a 40-year love affair with Asia for veteran journalist JohnMcBeth.
IN PETER Weir's 1982 film, Mel Gibson plays a foreign correspondent caught up in the tumult of his Year of Living Dangerously. Kiwi newsman John McBeth has lived that role for 40 of them, and counting. Since stepping off the boat in Singapore in 1970, the Taranaki-bred journalist has led a charmed existence, conforming to romantic notions of an intrepid reporter abroad. Five Thai coups. Conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. He even quit a job once after an editor had the temerity to crack wise about his safari shirt.
Initially planning a brief stopover en route to a Fleet St OE, McBeth instead got his "first taste of Asia's sensual pleasures" and hung around for the next four decades.
He wrote for The Bangkok Post at a time when westerners were still an exotic oddity in the kingdom, then for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, heading bureaux in Bangkok, Manila, Seoul and Jakarta over 25 years. When not riding rickety rural buses on reporting trips into the hinterlands, he conducted much of his business in Bangkok bars, with a salty array of contacts that included secret agents, diplomats, drug traffickers, and the sort of former soldiers who collect the ears of other former soldiers.
There was womanising, too, of course. "My colleagues and I would come in for criticism for our carousing, as if somehow, as journalists, we should stop being young men and turn into paragons of moral virtue," he writes in his newly published memoir Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia. "I, for one, make no excuses. We worked hard and we lived hard and frankly, a conventional romance just wasn't on the agenda."
For any neutered, garden-variety hack blearily countenancing the reality of modern corporate journalism, Reporter is salt air to the nostrils. "Where can I go to live this guy's life?" I called to my girlfriend, putting down the book. "The 1970s," she replied.
Unfortunately, says McBeth, she's right. The party's over. "I really don't think you can do that any more," he said in Wellington last week, during a visit from his Bali home to launch the book. "Those days are gone and I'm very privileged to have experienced it. The people you interviewed are all gone too – I cultivated my best sources, particularly in intelligence and narcotics, over a beer in bars.
"You couldn't call them up. Over time, they'd inevitably introduce you to other contacts, because you'd proved you were sound."
McBeth laments the old days in which, he says, slower news production and dissemination cycles left more space for correspondents to build a deeper knowledge of their beat. It also left more time for drinking. At least one anecdote in Reporter begins with the local press pack drinking in a bar of a morning. How did they get anything done?
"We played hard and we worked hard," he says, boasting of heroically fighting a raging hangover to file five leads on Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia on Christmas Day, 1978. "Journalism in those days was fun. I don't get the sense you guys today have the same amount of fun we did."
Spend any amount of time around the expat media scene in Asia and McBeth's name will inevitably be dropped. He's a legendary figure, a pure newsman who has never considered another calling since, as a shy, teenaged farmer's son, he first cowered up the stairs of the Taranaki Herald for a cadetship. Since then he's covered the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, broke the international scoop of North Korea's nuclear efforts, appeared as an extra in The Deer Hunter. His memoir sits on display in Singapore airport between biographies of founding statesman Lee Kuan Yew and Donald Rumsfeld.
Now 66, McBeth still writes a regular column for Singapore's Straits Times, commuting from his Bali home to Jakarta for a week every month to meet with sources. "I still believe in the warm body. Even contacts I've known for years I still like talking to face to face."
TRUE JOURNALISTS don't retire, he says. "I was born to be a journalist. I know I was, and I love what I'm doing. Even today I've got the same level of enthusiasm I had back then." Resolutely old school, McBeth is uncomfortable writing in the first-person, would never burn a source, and has as little regard for the young generation of reporters who "think they're the best thing since sliced bread" as he has for their fancy, overly personal writing.
Reporter has its moments of pure journalese: the Rolling Stones are inevitably "mop-haired", diplomats are "tennis-playing". But mostly a tough and sometimes pitiless reportorial voice predominates, with the author a distant secondary figure to the historic events and personalities.
Of the loss of his leg, to Buerger's disease in 1992, McBeth writes: "Frankly, it was almost a relief." Of the physician whom he believes inadequately informed him of the condition's risks, McBeth considered it "one of life's great ironies he died a year later at the age of 43, killed by a melanoma".
McBeth says he overcame his distaste for writing about himself in an effort to document the lost world of his wild tribe. "I'm the last of my generation," he says. "No Australian or New Zealand journalist is going to come to Asia by ship." Reporter records not just his own adventures, but those of Antipodean colleagues who, despite being "bloody legends" of the international press, are, like him, little known at home.
His highest praise is reserved for New Zealand-born reporter Kate Webb, who died in 2007 after four decades of distinguished reporting in the region. Among her many scrapes, she "once spent 23 days in Viet Cong captivity, was reported dead and had the unnerving experience of reading her own obituary after she was finally released", he writes.
One of the book's most vivid episodes is an account of Webb fighting off a drug-crazed Uzbek warlord, who ripped out her hair as he attempted to rape her in a near-deserted Kabul hotel. Two other reporters came to her aid, barricading her room door as the brute tried to smash his way in, then tiptoeing along the window ledge to break into a neighbouring room before he inevitably did. They repeated this process through the night before soldiers came to their rescue at dawn.
LIKE ANY memoir, Reporter is also an opportunity to settle some scores. McBeth has most to say about Australian journalist John Pilger, also acclaimed for his work in Indochina, who once alleged in print that McBeth had worked for the CIA. "I'm having my say now. He's had his," he says. The pair only ever met once, at a restaurant in 1979, in an encounter that still evidently rankles. "I didn't know the man, and he certainly didn't know me. In fact, he ignored me throughout the dinner," says McBeth.
"The fact that Pilger would later claim in the New Statesman I worked for the CIA is the cheapest shot in the book. It could have put my life in danger when I moved to Manila. The New People's Army [the local Communist Party's military wing] was knocking off people then." Pilger's allegation was "based on the fact I had a lot of CIA contacts", says McBeth. "But doesn't everybody?"
So why didn't he sue? "I could have," he says. "But journalists don't sue journalists, even though I don't think of Pilger as a journalist, per se." McBeth is especially critical of "leftist" journalists and academics for writing on Cambodia without, he says, having put in the work reporting from the frontline during the years of the murderous regime.
"Pilger never did anything on the Khmer Rouge during the reign of terror. All their views were based on where they came from ideologically; that annoyed me intensely." He concedes Pilger's documentary Year Zero, produced in the aftermath of Pol Pot's ousting, played a significant role in raising funds for the regime's victims, but "in terms of a true representation of what was happening, I think just about every journalist in Bangkok would have taken issue with it."
Generally speaking, the New Zealand media's interest in Asia has only shrunk since those Cold War conflicts, which disappoints McBeth. "I'm always told New Zealanders aren't interested in the rest of the world, but it's a chicken and egg situation." He's frustrated, too, with what he sees as an overwhelming focus on human rights issues which skews coverage of places like his new home.
"I know the Indonesians have faults, but the coverage sometimes seems so one-sided. Everyone wants to make things black and white. Asia has never been like that. You've got to see the grey areas."
But those are New Zealand's concerns, far removed from his home life with his wife, a prominent Indonesian journalist.
McBeth often mulls over how life might have worked out differently, but has never regretted a thing.
"If I had made it to Fleet St, I think I would have been home in three or four years. That would have been a work experience," he says. "Asia was a life experience. I can't explain it. The place just seems to get its arms around you."
Reporter – Forty Years Covering Asia, by John McBeth, is published by Singapore-based Talisman Publishing.
Sunday Star Times