WE ASK/THEY ANSWER: ‘THE GREAT (AND NOT SO GREAT) OF THE MEDIA OF THE ASIA PACIFIC’ An Exclusive Interview with Celebrated Career Editor David Armstrong

I was recently given the opportunity to interview longtime journalist and editor David Armstrong.  The course of his career has led him to traverse the Asian landscape, from Australia, to Hong Kong, and currently to Thailand.  Among his many prominent posts, he has been Editor-in-Chief of both The Australian and The South China Morning Post.  In this far-reaching interview, Mr. Armstrong touches on the current state of journalism, the leadership of Rupert Murdoch, the media climate in Asia, the growth of the Asian middle class, and the rise of China.  Not too shabby a range for the  “Accidental Journalist,” as he describes himself with the modesty so well-known to colleagues across the globe.

CB- What initially got you into journalism as a career?  What’s your educational background and how did it lead to journalism?

DA- I am an accidental journalist. I went to university with the aim of becoming a doctor but I found the gap between high school maths and science and university maths and science to be far beyond my ability to bridge. I switched to an Arts degree (liberals arts in the US, I think), majoring in history, thinking I might become a high school teacher. But a good friend of mine took over the university newspaper and asked me to help out. I started writing for the paper, called Tharunka  (an Australian Aboriginal word meaning “message stick”) and I found that (a) I enjoyed it and (b) I could do it reasonably well. Two years later I was voted editor of the paper. As it happened, Rupert Murdoch had started a national broadsheet newspaper called The Australian only a few years before that and the editors were keen to make inroads into the university market. One of the little things they did was provide a small scholarship (worth $1,500 a year) to the editor of Tharunka, expecting in return to be tipped off about university news. That meant I met a lot of the reporters and editors from The Australian and at the end of the year I was offered a job there. Any successful career requires good luck, as well as hard work. I got my first piece of good luck right at the start.

I studied some economics, which proved useful as the state of national and international economies became mainstream news from the 1970s onwards. And even though I failed university mathematics, I was at least numerate, which was an advantage when many of may contemporaries could not handle stories involving numbers.

But, most importantly, I studied history. Although I did not major in history as a conscious preparation for a career in journalism, I think it is the single best subject an aspiring journalist could study. It helps put one’s own society in the context of its development and one’s country in a context of international developments. And many of the skills of the historian and the journalist are similar: doing research, collecting information, making sense of it and then writing about it in a logical and coherent fashion. The way journalists and historians write, and the length at which they write, might differ but the best historians, and the best journalists are engaging writers who can capture and hold the reader’s attention.

CB- Give me a brief summary of your path from the beginning of your career, to becoming Editor-in-chief of the Australian.

DA- I started as a general news reporter on The Australian in 1969. Over the next few years I covered national and state politics and wrote editorials for the paper. In 1976 I moved to a national news-magazine called The Bulletin (which was like an Australian version of Time or Newsweek and which, sadly, closed a few years ago), mainly writing politics and economics. This was the start of 10 or so years of ping-ponging between the two national publications. I returned to The Australian as news editor in 1980, and eventually became deputy editor. In 1983 went back to The Bulletin and was later appointed editor. In 1986, I left The Bulletin when the powers-that-be decided to turn it into a lifestyle magazine and we both judged I was not the best person to take on that project. In returned to Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited as a political and economic analyst on his mid-market tabloid in Sydney, The Daily Telegraph. After two years I was made deputy editor but then was suddenly transferred toThe Australian, as deputy editor. My good luck in the 1980s manifested itself in my friendship with Ken Cowley, who had worked with Mr Murdoch to set up The Australian and who went on to become chief executive and chairman of News Corporation’s Australian operations. Mr Cowley appointed me editor of The Australian in 1989. Three years later Mr Cowley and Mr Murdoch decided I should be the next editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong but the job wouldn’t become vacant for another year. So I spent a year doing a “newspaper doctor” job at The Canberra Times (the national capital daily newspaper, then owned by Mr Kerry Stokes, who controls the Channel 7 national TV network). I went on to spend three years in Hong Kong, first as editor, then as editor-in-chief, before coming back to The Australian as editor-in-chief in 1996. (In 2003, I was asked to go back to Hong Kong as editor-in-chief and later was appointed to the board of the Bangkok Post company. In 2005 I was asked to move to Bangkok to run the company. I retired from that position in 2008 and a little while later was appointed chairman of the Phnom Penh Post company).

CB- Would you recommend a career in Journalism to students today? Why or why not?

DA- This is a tough question but the answer is “Yes.” For one thing, the death of newspapers (and TV news) so far is something of a Mark Twain phenomenon. Traditional means of providing news and analysis are still alive and will not disappear tomorrow. Eventually, we won’t be chopping down trees to disseminate news (although, unlike the US and Canada, many countries use recycled newsprint). The old business model is breaking down and traditional news media will eventually go the way of vellum books hand-written by monks. The world is seeing a lot of experiments with digital media and pricing, various apps and online pricing mechanisms but so far there is no clear new business model.
The world, however, is full of information junkies – people who want to know about the world, or worlds, around them and who want to read detailed accounts and analyses of these worlds, to understand them better, to be stimulated and challenged, or to have their own views and prejudices confirmed (or, sometimes, to be stirred up by writers they love to hate). There is still a need, and demand, for reliable news. Many readers of such papers as the LA Times, the New York Times and The Australianare information junkies.

A lot of bloggers are very interesting but many of them bounce off traditional news sources. Much of the news that is shared on social media comes from traditional media; much that is user-generated tends to be curiosities rather than hard news. I’d be more worried about social media if I were running an email operation than a news company.

The breakdown of traditional business models, however, means there will be fewer organised news outlets, or big organized news outlets. There will be fewer opportunities for journalists than in the past and almost certainly the salaries will be less generous. And journalists will have to be better-trained than my generation was – able to write, to take and sensible crop photos, to take and edit sound and video recordings – to present a multi-media package of a news story. But as long as there are information junkies there will be a demand for reliable news and journalists who are able to present it in appealing ways.

CB- What motivated your move to the South China Morning Post?

DA- I worked at the South China Morning Post twice – from 1993 to 1996 and from 2003 to 2006.
I had always wanted to work in Asia. To people in the US, Asia is the “far east”; to Australians it is the “near north.”  I had studied Asian history, including Chinese history, and after leaving university I read Chinese history books and historical novels set in China purely out of interest. I was born, however, at the wrong time, I had thought: decolonisation took place while I was still in primary school and most newspaper jobs had been localised, so the opportunities for western journalists had declined. As it happened for seven or eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, News Corporation owned the South China Morning Post, through News Limited, its Australian arm. So when Ken Cowley asked me to become editor of the paper I didn’t need much persuading. This was in the period that would see the end of British rule in Hong Kong and its return to China, presenting an opportunity to experience and chronicle an historic process. The other key attraction was this: in the West, a lot of politics is game-playing; is the world going to stop turning because a Republican beats a Democrat in a presidential race or the Australian Labor Party replaces the Liberals? But in Hong Kong in the 1990s, political debates and decisions would have a fundamental bearing in the future of Hong Kong society and lives of its citizens. The issues a serious newspaper would handle in Hong Kong assumed a much greater importance in the lives of its readers. Going to Hong Kong was a dream fulfilled, a fabulous opportunity, a tremendous professional challenge and a transforming personal experience.
In 1996 I returned to Australia, and The Australian, for family reasons. In 2001 my wife, Deb, passed away and in 2002 I stepped down from the paper. I took on a corporate role for a while but after doing a project or two I started to feel like a Japanese “window man”. In 2003, the owners of the South China Morning Post asked me to come back as editor-in-chief.

CB- You have worked for both Rupert Murdoch and Robert Kuok, each very influential “media men.”  How do they compare as bosses?  How active was each one in the operation of their papers?

DA- Rupert Murdoch is a “news” man through and through. He was a demanding boss but he was also an understanding boss. I think there are at least two Rupert Murdochs. From the 1960s until the late 1980s, Rupert was restless and ruthless, in charge of a small but growing company, desperate for every buck it could get. The younger Rupert wanted things done his way. He would intervene in editorial matters without hesitation and fire editors if they if acted contrary to his wishes or showed the first signs of failure or burn-out. We had five editors at The Australian in my first five or six years there. By the late 1980s he was in charge of a very large corporation with big operations in the US, the UK and Australia and Asia. While he was also determined to expand he was no longer desperate. I think he regretted the waste of human talent involved in the past, when the attitude towards editors was burn’ em out, then kick ’em out. He became more measured, more thoughtful… more mellow, perhaps.

While I observed the younger Rupert, I worked more closely with Rupert Two and it was a pleasure. Only once did he ask me about the editorial line we were going to take on a political development; I told him what I planned and he agreed. Because he knew the business, you could talk to him about the papers. He was always excited by new ideas (I think this is one of the things that keeps him going) and almost always supported plans to improve the paper. This would lead to some “creative tension” in the organisation because he would, at the same time, tell the managers to control or cut costs. Sometimes, if he thought I had done well, he would even say “thank you.” My colleagues in charge of the London papers at the time told me Rupert rang them often and discussed issues for as long time but they never seemed perturbed and seemed to regard the conversations as perfectly legitimate – persuasion, perhaps, rather than direction.

Rupert liked, however, to make sure editors remembered who the boss was, so I knew that he would be in a more belligerent mood once in every five or six meetings. I simply thought that came with the territory. If you worked for News for a long time (I was there for 25 years, on and off) it was in many ways like a family company: both the senior managers and Rupert himself were exceptionally kind and generous when my wife became ill and later passed away.

Robert Kuok, however, is a businessman who owns a basket of companies in different industries and who happens to own a majority interest in a newspaper, having bought most of News Corporation’s shares in the South China Morning Post company in 1993. I’m still not sure why he bought the paper. Perhaps it was simply a business decision: SCMP was reputed to be the world’s most profitable newspaper at the time. Some said he wanted to turn SCMP into a pro-Beijing paper, for it was very firmly on the British side in the political struggle with China in the years before the handover. Yet he readily accepted my argument that a radical change in policy would alienate most of the readership and that the policy should be simply to judge each issue on its merits. Personally, Robert was warm and generous and always listened to my concerns about problems at the paper, even if fixing the problems cost money. He did not interfere in editorial decisions. However, his son, Ean, who later became chairman of the company, would from time time deliver long lectures about developments in China or the state of Hong-Kong China relations and it always seemed likely that the lecture was inspired by the dinner table conversation in the Kuok family compound the night before.

Whatever the motivation for buying the paper, Robert certainly wanted it run as a business. In 1994, one of the local Chinese newspaper companies started a competitor English language paper, Eastern Express. The editors of this paper hoped to get half the staff by poaching from SCMP. We managed to limit the loss to 10 per cent, partly by paying more, to match the high salaries on offer from the start-up operation. The salary bill increased by 10 per cent. Months later, when we had beaten off the competitor. the board ordered a 10 per cent cut in editorial staff numbers. It was a justifiable business decision but a strange way of repaying the loyalty of those who had stayed to fight off the newcomer.

But the big difference between Rupert and Robert was that, in my time at SCMP, the Kuoks (including the offspring who moved into the company) never understood the business. Problems were always tackled by changing personnel – editors, circulation managers, advertising directors, marketing people. It reminded me of those working for the young Rupert.

CB- Can you describe how the media climate in Asia compares to that in the west for an editor?  Are there more levels of approval you have to seek, whether formally or informally, when running a big story in Asia?

DA- The media climate in Asia is more sensitive than in the West, especially as the network of business and political relationships is usually both smaller and more nuanced than in the West. And it goes without saying that the idea of freedom of the press is not so deeply rooted in Asia. I think an editor in Asia has to be smarter than one in the West, more aware of the relationships and their potential to cause difficulties and well aware that there is more than one way of getting a message across. Here is a small example: on June 4, 1989 the Chinese army put down a protest movement around Tiananmen Square, the historic centre of Beijing, killing hundreds of people. It became know as the Tiananmen Massacre. The Chinese authorities objected to the word “massacre” and would ban any publications that used it. So it became a kind of badge of honor in the Western media to always use the term “Tiananmen Massacre”. I understood the sentiment but eventually I abandoned the word “massacre”: Hong Kong people knew exactly what we meant if we simply said “Tiananmen” or “June 4”; and we could then write about the issues involved in the protest without getting banned in China.

When I went to Hong Kong I thought the newspaper’s firmly pro-British stance had considerable merit, as it was essentially a pro-democracy position but it was also ultimately counter-productive, as backing Britain on an idea would ensure China’s opposition. So we modified the approach to be explicitly concerned about the future of Hong Kong and to judge issues as they arose on their merits. We developed an approach, when we thought China was wrong, of proceeding by argument and persuasion, rather than direct criticism. We didn’t confront for the sake of confronting. Editorials were often written as though they were meant to be read in Beijing (and they were). I wouldn’t want to make too much of it, but there is some evidence that the approach was at least occasionally effective.

I didn’t seek approval before running big stories: that would have been the kiss of death for the story.

CB- As Chairman of Post Media in Cambodia, do you find fewer or greater governmental restrictions on the papers compared with your experience in Hong Kong?

DA- The Hong Kong Government did not restrict the press. The real issue was self-censorship, for fear of provoking a reaction in China. The challenge for us was to find ways of saying things, ways of presenting stories, that would inform readers without getting us banned in China, where we had a small circulation, among visitors and expatriates. Nevertheless, issues would occasionally be banned; we were never told why and often it was by no means obvious.

The press in Cambodia is quite free. Newspaper circulations are quite small there and I get the impression the government is rather more concerned with what goes out on radio and TV than with what appears in newspapers, especially in English-language newspapers. The Information Minister in Cambodia, Mr Khieu Kanharith, says he supports press freedom and has proved to be as good as his word. Having said that, I get the impression that a number of newspapers in Cambodia are pro-government and so don’t cause any problems.

CB- In your opinion, what is driving the rise in demand for English language dailies, like the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia?  Who makes up the majority of your market? Do those circumstances apply to other Asian markets?

DA- I wouldn’t like to leave you with the impression that sales of the Phnom Penh Post in English are zooming. Sales are solid with steady growth and it is the biggest-selling English-language paper there. The market is largely expatriates and visitors, with some sales among the Khmer elite, especially former refugees who have returned to run businesses in Cambodia. The real growth is in our Khmer-language Phnom Penh Post: it has been going only a little more than two years but it is already outselling the English paper. In both cases the key to circulation sales is the presentation of reliable news. We have the only serious Khmer-language newspaper: the others are tabloid in style, if not in size, and politically aligned. Our editors tell us that ours is the only local language paper on which the journalists go to the trouble of checking their information.

In Bangkok and Hong Kong, where there are much bigger and better-established local business and bureaucratic elites, the ratio of local to expatriate/visitor readers of the English-language papers is closer to 50:50, with a small local majority in Hong Kong.

CB- Academia is emphasizing the growing middle class in Asia as the driving force for greater living standards and expectations.  As an expat living in Asia for many years, you have had a unique view of this rising standard of living.   What role do you see the media taking in these increasing standards?  Does the media cater to the demands of the growing market, or does it drive that demand in some way?

DA- I really don’t have answers to these questions – they raise such complex issues. Let’s make some observations on two levels. One is that over the past 10 or 20 years lifestyle journalism has become more important. The papers have big lifestyle sections and glossy lifestyle magazines flood the news-stands every month. They have small, but presumably affluent, circulations for they are full of advertising for expensive homes, watches, cars, resorts and cosmetics. SCMP has long had strong lifestyle sections, based on different areas of interest each day. One of its Chinese-language competitors, the Hong Kong Economic Times, made itself very successful by abandoning the day-by-day special section approach and publishing a big lifestyle section each day, covering all areas of lifestyle. Bangkok Post has recently adopted a similar approach. Two of the most successful additions to Bangkok Post have been lifestyle magazines – Guru, for younger people, and Brunch, a Sunday magazine. And SCMP has done very well in recent times producing both a series of inserted magazines and a number of stand-alone lifestyle magazines with exceptionally high-class design and printing. I would imagine this lifestyle journalism mainly feeds to demand but to the extent that the journalists write about new things – new restaurants, new resorts, new cars, new spas – they are also adding to the demand.

Politically, the influence of the media varies from place to place, depending on the grouping the journalists come from. Hong Kong, for instance, prosperous and with a good education system, has long had an affluent active middle class. Many people in Hong Kong strongly supported the Tiananmen protesters and over the years there have been huge demonstrations in Hong Kong, commemorating June 4 or protesting against aspects of Beijing’s policies towards Hong Kong. These have largely been middle class phenomena and with journalists being drawn from the same educated middle class, they have received strong backing from the media, no matter what the proprietors might have thought.

In Thailand, the most important development politically has been the rise of a better-educated, better-informed, better-connected middle class in the traditionally poorer areas of north and north-east, aspiring to counter the political influence of the Bangkok elite and middle class. Bangkok has been the scene of big protests in recent years. The demonstrations were mounted first by “yellow shirts” – mainly Bangkok middle class supporters of the Bangkok-based ruling structure. They were followed by protests by “red shirts” – largely people from the north and northeast, plus their friends and relations who have moved to Bangkok to work. Many of the foot soldiers in the “red” camp have been poorer people but their leaders have been more middle-class types.

The media, with journalists drawn from the Bangkok middle class, have tended to side with the “yellow shirts” and to oppose the “red shirts”. In the English-language press, The Nation has been explicitly pro-yellow and anti-red; Bangkok Post, acting more professionally, has striven to be more neutral but has leaned in the same direction. In both cases, they are catering to the demands of their middle class markets, as they see them, with Bangkok Post editors judging that over the longer term their market expects the news to be more balanced and detached.

CB- How do you view the rise of Asia in global prominence? Is it overhyped in western media? What are the implications of such a rise on the global Media?

DA- I think the rise of Asia is . . . inevitable. There’s not much point in worrying whether it is good or bad without first recognizing that it is happening and will continue. For various reasons the great societies of India and China for centuries were held back (or held themselves back) while the West grew stronger and stronger on the back of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution (with its attendant superiority in military firepower) and the creation of the joint stock company, which mobilised funds for investment. Now the governments of those two countries are focused on growth, the skills and energies of their peoples have been unleashed and modern technology and processes are freely available. And, of course, they gain from Western investment (just as the US gained from European investment in the latter stages of the 19th century). The ASEAN countries will form an economic bloc of 600 million people from 2015 and they collectively will be a force.

Will China be a threat in the future? Almost certainly. Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans is often quoted as saying great powers do what great powers do – that is, throw their weight around.
I don’t think the rise of Asia is over-hyped in the Western media but what I find lacking is a sense of perspective. We see projections that China will become the world’s biggest economy in the next 10 or 20 years. What is often left unsaid is that the US and Europe will still be big, strong economies and their citizens will still be far more affluent than China’s. It is not as though New York or Bonn will be like Rome after the Visigoths. And the US will still be the strongest military power, by far ( as long as it is not fighting multiple wars).

It reminds me a little of current perceptions of Japan. Japan has more or less stagnated for two decades but it is not down-and-out. It remains a very sophisticated, very big and very strong society and economy – not that you would know it from the Western media. So, too, is South Korea. Among young people in Asia the dominant popular culture is Korean.

The implications for the international media are the same as they have been for the past 15 or 20 years: the media needs more journalists willing to learn about the Asian economies, polities and societies and to report on Asia seriously. The dilemma is this: basing reporters in Asia or sending them there is expensive, so as the media business model breaks down it will become even more difficult for the news media to do its job of reporting relevant news. Of course, most media won’t see the dilemma because most media, apart from the great capital city or national newspapers, are parochial and insular. That’s understandable – local news always has more immediacy. But the more serious media will have to work hard to get their priorities right. Will they spend their dwindling dollars on national or international coverage? If there is an international budget, where does it go? Syria? Sudan? China? India? These will be tough questions for editors and media company managers but as the world changes, some of the traditional media concerns should change with it.

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