“Journalism is about finding out things and then telling the audience what you have learnt – it doesn’t really matter whether it is about the human genome or the Chinese shadow banking system. Once you find out what is interesting about a subject, the rest is easy.” Asia Media discovered many facets of journalism from Financial Times Columnist David Pilling. In our recent interview covering topics ranging from the industry as a whole to the future of Asia, Pilling at one point equates working with the Financial Times to working in the foreign service — but nevertheless he clearly enjoys his career.
1. What advice would you give to university students who are looking to pursue a career in journalism?
Journalism is certainly an industry in great flux and as a result it is a slightly scary moment to enter the profession. Journalists are now having to multi-task (write blogs, news stories, analysis, produce videos – all before breakfast) and wages for all but the most successful or specialist journalists are probably on a downward trend.
But what industry is not under enormous pressure? Journalism is still a fabulous profession. I wouldn’t want to have done anything else. I have been fortunate enough to visit perhaps 50 countries in a reporting capacity, to have covered coups and Aids conferences and disasters, such as the Japanese tsunami – and that’s working for a financial newspaper! Being a journalist means one gets to see humanity at the very extremes of its existence. One also meets an incredible range of people from VIPs (I call them vagabonds in power) to brave and heroic people making a difference in their daily lives. (I remember, for example, the Madres de Mayo in Argentina, who campaigned for years to have the bodies of their “disappeared” children returned). I used to call Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned sheep in the world, a friend so often did I meet her. Once in Panama, I interviewed the previous, present and future president of the country all in a single day. There are few professions where one has the chance to make so many interesting encounters.
As for how to get into journalism, there is really no set path. I would suggest studying whatever you like, whether it be science, philosophy, languages or international relations. If you are an interesting and interested person, and you can write, the rest will follow. I studied journalism after my first degree. It helped get me a foot in the door. But the best way of learning journalism is to do it.
2. What’s one thing you wish you could change about the media industry? What’s one thing you cherish most and hope would not be easily changed?
Sometimes I wish there was less emphasis on speed and more on quality. A colleague of mine once called the foreign desk and said: “I am off to Peru. I will call you when I get back in a week.” In an era or mobile phones, twitter and 24-hour rolling news, those days are gone. I caught the tail end of them and I miss them.
I do believe that journalists represent the fourth estate. Our job is to stand outside society and to examine it as objectively as possible – that is a valuable role to play.
3. What’s your most important resource — and/or skill — that you needed to develop as a journalist?
I think there are several. Inquisitiveness, an ability to make links, an ability to understand complexity but to explain it simply, empathy, a degree of ruthlessness, paranoia (the confident journalist is usually rubbish), a good memory, an ability with languages, stamina, a beautiful writing style. The truth is, as I hope you have guessed by now, no single journalist has all these attributes. The best ones have at least some of these characteristics.
4. To what extent is reporting an important facet of what you do? How do you balance fact and opinion?
I have become an opinion writer recently. Opinion without facts is meaningless. I make it a rule not to write about a country I have not visited fairly recently. Given that I cover Asia from Afghanistan to Australia, this is good for my air-mile collection but terrible for my marriage. Some columnists play a role by being provocative almost for the sake of it. But personally I value more nuanced opinion writing. I generally don’t trust people who think they know all the answers.
5. How do you decide which leads to follow in such a huge continent with so many booming nations ?
China dominates what I write about for obvious reasons. When I write about other things, I simply choose what I am interested in – political opening in Burma/Myanmar, the business-political nexus in India, the death of Osama bin Laden and so on. Sometimes the topic picks itself. Otherwise, it can be as simple as what book you are reading at the time or what news item catches your attention.
6. The Financial Times seems to be the only major press outlet — in the UK or really almost anywhere else — that has a significant focus on Asia, why do you think that is?
The FT has become a truly global paper. Only around one-quarter of our sales are in our home base. Business is global and so are we. Our emphasis on Asia is simply a reflection of a shift in the world’s centre of gravity.
7. What do you think are the most important ingredients for an Asian nation in order to achieve a successful political and economic climate?
That is a very big question. There is not, unfortunately , a neat correlation between democracy and growth (or for that matter between dictatorship and growth). China, a one-party state, has done spectacularly well. So has Japan, a democracy. Taiwan and South Korea started out as dictatorships and transitioned to democracy. North Korea and Myanmar have both been dictatorships for decades.
So the determinants of growth must lie elsewhere.
8. In any sense is the weekend magazine HOW TO SPEND IT offensive to you?
For many readers, How to Spend It remains purely aspirational. I think you have to approach it with a modicum of humour. As a journalist, I can reveal, there is absolutely nothing I can afford that appears in the magazine. If buying such stuff is important to you, you may wish to ignore my answer to question 1.