Without Feer

by Philip Bowring

South China Morning Post October 30, 2004

Not with a bang but with a whimper. So died the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, a product born in Hong Kong 58 years ago and which in its heyday between 1965 and 1990 was a major force in Asian journalism, nurturing many a fine writer, getting up the nostrils of governments and businessmen everywhere - and making money.

Doubtless, autocrats will be having a good laugh, having first neutered the magazine, which was once a thorn in their side, to the point where few bothered to take it seriously. In its heyday it took on Lee Kuan Yew in his own courts, losing but achieving a huge moral victory.

There are plenty of distinguished people around who'll look back with pride or nostalgia at a magazine which gave scope to their talents. They include globally famous writers such as the late David Bonavia and Ian Buruma, financial gurus such as Christopher Wood and Credit Lyonnais Asia boss Gary Coull, Asiaweek founder T.J.S. George, Singapore hotel entrepreneur Ho Kwon Ping - twice jailed for his reporting efforts.

Legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing cut her teeth on the magazine. Former Central Policy Unit head Leo Goodstadt was deputy editor and gave Court of Final Appeal judge Andrew Li Kwok-nang a job there during his legal studies. Its roll-call of Asian writers included Paisal Sricharatchanya, Denzil Pieris, Nayan Chanda, Susumu Awanohara, K. Das, Shim Jae Hoon and Salamat Ali - the latter both doing jail terms for their reporting - and non-Asians such as Hamish McDonald, Jonathan Friedland and Margaret Scott.

Its growth came from skilful use of local writers. When I joined the staff in 1973, it had no staff correspondents, relying entirely on stringers and outside contributors. By 1992, it had more than 20 staffers outside Hong Kong. It was the first publication to recognise that there was such a thing as a regional English-language market. It gained a reputation, too, from its critical reporting on the Vietnam war, and for its stance during the Cultural Revolution riots in 1967, when it was highly critical of the government but stood up against threats and taunts from the left.

The death of the Review came by a thousand cuts inflicted primarily by Karen House, the emissary from New York who took over responsibility for the Review two years after Dow Jones, previously a minority shareholder, acquired 100 per cent of the magazine in 1987.

House, who happens to be the wife of Dow Jones chairman Peter Kann, was in Hong Kong for the death. Perhaps fortunately, Derek Davies, the fiery rotund Welshman who had presided over the Review's glory days, was unable to witness the end. He died two years ago.

The thousand cuts were a succession of failed makeovers and revolving editors after House arrived on the scene. Between 1946 and 1992, the magazine had just four editors: the founder, Eric Halpern, Dick Wilson (still alive in London), Davies and myself. In the 12 subsequent years under House management it had six, of whom the last, David Plott, had been in the chair just a few months.

The magazine lost its way because people in New York thought they understood what the readers wanted more than those who were on the ground in Asia who had nurtured the magazine from humble beginnings to the most successful regional magazine in the world, which made a $16 million profit in the year that Dow Jones acquired it.

My own successor, Gordon Crovitz, was a bright young writer on legal affairs who had no experience, either in Asia or of magazines. He not only set the new tone but combined the role of editor with publisher, which necessarily led to a softening in the magazine's stance. There is an inherent conflict of interest between the demands of editorial and those of the advertising salespeople, headed by the publisher.

The new approach was soon evident in the deal the Review cut with Singapore, from which the magazine had been banned for more than four years. Before the ban, about 15 per cent of the circulation had been in the city state. But the price of return was to stop covering Singapore in the forthright manner the readers expected. The magazine had thrived on controversy and promoting a free press in a none-too-free Asia. Although the costs in the short term could be high, the reputation that the magazine acquired more than made up for it.

Another deep cut was the dumbing-down of the magazine in an effort to make it "more readable". The Review had appealed to a coalition of often quite specialised readers - wanting in-depth coverage of, for example, Malaysian politics, economic policy in Thailand, or banking regulation in Hong Kong. But New York looked for shorter, simpler pieces. The result was that correspondents were unable to display their strengths, stories were cut and shaped into homogenised prose.

The number of correspondents was slashed to make room for more copy-shufflers in Hong Kong, some imported straight out of journalism school in the US. The net result was a product which often gave the reader no more than a summary of the wire services.

Another cut was to move away from hard-hitting, controversial coverage of corporate and financial scandals, of which there is an endless supply. The magazine had started the slide on Jim Slater's Asian empire in 1975, uncovered numerous tales of dodgy dealings in Malaysia, exposed the banking misdeeds of Overseas Trust Bank and Ka Wah Bank before the banking commissioner woke up to them and was forced to come to the rescue with billions in public money. Its coverage of insider trading in Hong Kong led directly to the first rules on the subject. Its weekly Shroff column was a must-read among the investment fraternity.

In place of this kind of reporting, the Review resorted to soft, usually glowing pieces about this or that multinational - American ones in particular - in Asia. It followed, unsceptically, the dotcom boom. It also became a mouthpiece for a right-wing US ideology which left a very sour taste in the mouths of many Asian readers.

Prior to my departure, the Review had only occasionally run editorials, believing that it was impossible to impose a single world view, a one-size-fits-all judgmental yardstick on so diverse a region. Commitment to a free media had been the Review's only ideology and that was given away by Dow Jones in pandering to Lee Kuan Yew and his ilk.

As a small, locally owned publication, the magazine had been feisty and prepared to suffer for its beliefs. In the hands of a multinational without such commitments it proved Mr Lee right. He had always argued that if he hit the critical western-owned press at its pocket, it would shut up. That didn't work with the Review of Derek Davies. But Dow Jones surrendered to Singapore after a few shots across the bows. It was an especially pathetic response given the resources of Dow Jones. But the interests of the Review were subordinate to the group's other commercial demands.

Indeed, it was an interesting fact that the magazine had complete editorial freedom when owned primarily by the South China Morning Post at the time when this newspaper's major shareholder was the Hong Kong Bank. The bank provided the chairman - in my time Eric Udal, John Boyer and Frank Frame - and they were always supportive in our run-ins with governments, despite the embarrassment this could cause to their bank. They didn't pretend to know much about journalism and took Review assumptions of editorial freedom for granted.

Yet another cut was the shift away from the in-depth coverage of business and politics to soft-centred features of the sort that appear in airline magazines. The latest and last issue devotes eight pages to chillies! This was yet another ill-judged attempt to broaden the Review's appeal. It lost the magazine respect and gained it no new readers.

Although the circulation has apparently increased a little in recent years, much of that is illusory. Back in 1992, more than 70 per cent of circulation consisted of individual subscriptions - people prepared to pay good money to get a valuable product.

The last audit report (in the first half of this year) shows 50 per cent of the average paid circulation of 87,500 to be deeply discounted bulk sales. News-stand sales had collapsed to 3,000, or less than half the 1990 level.

Of course it is true that the market has become much more competitive than it was in the 1970s and 80s. Local English-language publications have improved in some countries. Media freedoms have come to others. New electronic media offers competition, as do foreign magazines such as The Economist and Business Week. But the very success of those two publications in Asia attests to the market for serious political and business coverage. They have not found it necessary to dumb down and write about chillies. The Review abandoned its readers before they abandoned it.

The final insult to the Review, and indeed to Asia, was Dow Jones' refusal to sell the title. It has had plenty of offers - which would benefit its own shareholders.

But it is more important for House and her husband that no one gets the chance to revive what it has suffocated. Nor do they wish for more competition for advertising which would add to the losses of the Asian Wall Street Journal.

There is a parallel here between Time and Asiaweek. Time bought locally-born Asiaweek even though it appeared to be in direct competition for readers and advertising. Not so long afterwards, Time closed Asiaweek rather than its ailing Time Asia. It was corporate imperialism more than commercial sense which brought Dow Jones to buy control of the Review, which was a direct competitor for niche regional advertising. Faced with the fact that both have been losing money, it naturally decided to close the regional product rather than its own Asian Wall Street Journal - a paper being daily trounced by the Financial Times.

Critics of globalisation will doubtless see in this kind of behaviour the use of financial power of large multinationals to snuff out local products and create a bigger field for their own product. I see no such conspiracy.

But I do see repeated examples of big corporations not comprehending the needs of small, niche businesses such as the Review. And it is clear that the closure of the Review, as of Asiaweek, represents an attack on diversity and further reduction in the variety of print media. In short, Dow Jones has undermined the pluralism and anti-monopolism which the US at its best has always represented.

Meanwhile, the "new" monthly Review will doubtless serve as another outlet for the right-wing ideology and imperialist postures of the Wall Street Journal editorial page - from which its editor is being recruited. Another insult for Asia.






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