Derek Davies Obituary

from The Times, September 20, 2002


Derek Davies: Journalist whose feistiness, sense of fund and determination to tell the truth revolutionised Asian journalism


Derek Davies was a man in the right place at the right time: Hong Kong, the mid-point of East Asia as it was being transformed by 50 years of war and peace. But few other non-Asians contributed as much to the transformation as this short, chubby Welshman.

His 25 years as editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review saw the worthy, but ponderously titled and barely profitable, Hong Kong weekly gradually develop into a highly regarded, politically influential, often-criticised but profitable Asian regional publication.

The Review became the most successful regional weekly anywhere in the world, and by the time Davies left in 1989 it had some 20 staff correspondents in a dozen bureaux in Asia and one each in the US and Australia. It was not as slick as Time or Newsweek, or as glib as The Economist, but its political reporting and its probing analysis of corporate and economic issues made it essential reading for business and professional elites throughout southeast Asia.

Davies had a rare combination of keen intellect, fluent pen, pugnacious personality and sense of humour that made for good comradeship. He was the ideal man to lead a small but highly motivated group of journalists who worked mostly for professional satisfaction rather than their pay cheque.

His entry into journalism was itself a product of his independence. After National Service, Jesus College, Cambridge and a stint with Reuters, he joined the Foreign Office and served in Hanoi and Vienna. There he met his future wife Shizue Sanada, a Japanese pianist. British diplomats were not then allowed to marry Japanese, so he gave up his career to marry.He moved back to journalism and to the Financial Times, from where he went to the Review, in which it had a stake, in 1962, becoming Editor two years later.

The Review was not predestined to be a success. English-language regional publishing in Asia has seen many failures, and the Review's own star has faded since his retirement. So what was the secret of the increase in circulation from four figures in 1965 to 75,000 in 1990, with sales across numerous countries, 70 per cent of them to individual subscribers willing to pay full price for a quality product?

Two things made the Review uniquely successful, and both came from Davies. First was a willingness to give writers their head. He believed in seeking out bright, inquisitive, energetic journalists and letting them get on with it. In the early days this could be a hit-and-miss business, since the magazine had to rely in many instances on local stringers, so the quality was uneven, to say the least. But the best was very good, and even many of the poorer articles covered Asian countries and issues that other media ignored.

Success meant more staff, and bright young journalists began to aspire to work for the Review. While Davies's laissez-faire attitude may sometimes have led to sloppy copy, the emphasis on putting resources in the field, rather than on copy editing, was highly productive. And correspondents preferred to defend what they had actually written, rather than have the homogenised product of a rewrite desk.

The second key was Davies's determination to print what the correspondents found, not what government or companies wanted. He never flinched from supporting correspondents under fire. He supported liberalism and democracy in broad terms but tried to avoid being ideological. The Review covered too many countries to believe in one theory of governance or economy, and Davies abolished regular editorials for this reason.

The magazine suffered frequently from having issues banned or pages torn out, and some correspondents did time in prison. But this willingness to offend heightened its reputation. It took a generally critical view of America's war in Vietnam, and also boosted its reputation with its coverage of events such as the 1967 Cultural Revolution confrontations in Hong Kong and the 1969 disturbances in Malaysia.

Most famously, it was both restricted and pirated by the Singapore Government, and was sued for libel by the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. It lost, as is the norm in Singapore courts, but with Geoffrey Robertson, QC, pleading its case, it put up a splendid fight. Davies declined to cave in, and determined to live with the loss of circulation rather than operate under the Singapore Government's conditions.

Later, Dow Jones, which bought control of the Review in the late 1980s, preferred revenue to principle and managed to reach a modus vivendi with Singapore which all but neutered the news coverage of that country. Dow Jones and Davies were always uneasy bedfellows.The US media group was big and bossy and often outraged by his weekly personal column, "Travellers' Tales", which combined pithy comments on events with reminiscences and humour.

Davies's numerous critics considered him self-centred, irascible and at times ruthless in promoting his own interest. He sometimes fostered tensions within the office that were more divisive than creative in effect. He could give out criticism but was less than ready to absorb it, and the affection and respect that many inside and outside the company felt for the magazine did not always extend to the man.

But life was never dull. He wanted the staff and others around him to enjoy life, to eat well, drink well and enjoy robust conversation, serious or scatological. Hundreds of visitors to Hong Kong -politicians, businessmen and fellow journalists as well as his own staff -enjoyed his unstinting hospitality. Often this took the form of Sunday boat trips, usually to Po Toi, a small outlying island with a fine seafood restaurant and good swimming. He was also proud of his Welsh ancestry, a good excuse for bibulous gatherings, without becoming the "professional Welshman".

He enjoyed good personal relations with many leading figures in the Hong Kong Government and among the foreign policy makers of South East Asia. But others thought him a little beyond the pale and insufficiently diplomatic. Though he was the central figure in one of the most successful predominantly British enterprises in Asia, he never received any British honour -these seemed to be reserved in Asia for dull diplomats and some doubtfully honest bankers. He may have felt that this reflected modern Britain's dangerous aversion to risk.

He was certainly irked by the decline of the magazine he had built. Over the years since he retired, its content had, he believed, been dumbed down, its political coverage castrated by fear of advertisers and governments. He was particularly saddened last year when its correspondent network, already much reduced, was merged with that of the Asian Wall Street Journal.

The identity of a magazine once notorious for its feisty independence was submerged in Dow Jones, its editorial line a carbon copy of the Wall Street Journal's right-wing editorial pages. Davies was hurt and contemptuous. He knew that the Review had been an example and inspiration to many in Asia, at least in those countries where politics permitted, who were working to improve journalistic standards. It had been an integral part of the great Asian boom of 1955-95.

Derek Davies divided his relaxed retirement between London and a house near Nice. He is survived by his wife, their two sons and a daughter. Derek Davies, former Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, was born on March 9, 1931. He died of liver cancer in Antibes on September 15, 2002, aged 71.



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