There was a time when the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club comprised mostly foreign correspondents rather than NGO and diplomatic types. Grumpy old men like Unspun are given to reminisce about the old days when the foreign press corps in jakarta was a tight-knit group where we drank together, went out together, covered the stories together, drank some more, competed each other, told each other our war stories and drank still some more.
But Unspun’s a babe in the woods when it comes to the reminiscing department. There is a couple of old hands with stories that reach back much longer, and these stories are not confined only to Jakarta but to the region. They belong to a group of expat journalists who came east, roughed it out, and reported on one of the most colorful periods of SE Asian history, when dictators ruled, authoritarianism and censorship was very much de rigeur among governments and larger-than-life characters loomed. Ghaddafi and Mubarak would have felt at home among those rulers in the way they tried to control the information.
Then, something happened. The economies of these countries boomed and because of technological and modernization, government became less authoritarian, information flowed more freely. At the same time the media came a bet more gentrified and sent highly educated graduates from Ivy League schools East to report and even manage news bureaus in Asia. They knew less but thought they knew more then the old Asian hands and it marked the decline of an era where publications like the Far East Economic Review, Asiaweek and Asian Wall Street Journal lost their way and eventually ended up closed or a shadow of their former selves.
What happened to the journalists? Many of them drifted into academia, some drifted into the Dark Side (PR, especially for APCO in Malaysia), others tried to start news portals and still others became what Unspun calls the Hong Kong Ronin, hawking their journalistic skills from one master to another, as print media went into its worst decade.
One of those journalists is John McBeth, who came to Asia on a ship, tells a good tale of his earliest days in Asia and wrote for the Far East Economic Review for many years until it closed down in 2004. Unspun remembers being told about John when Unspun first landed in Jakarta in 1996. A fellow foreign correspondent said I should definitely get to know John because he knows a hell of a lot. This was to prove true in the following ears when John broke several stories, including the rise of Wiranto when none of them had even heard much of him then.
Since then the FEER has closed down and John is now back to his freelancing career, mainly for the Straits Times. In between he has also been hard at work on his book, called Reporter. It is part biography and part storytelling of the people and events he covered, so says the cover blurb. If it is anything close to the stories that John can tell, as he shoots you a glance that says something like “oh God these young whippersnappers these days” then it should be a great read, entertaining as well as educational.
John’s book is to be launched in Indonesia on March 8.