Sandra Burton - an inspiration to all journalists

SCMP March 8

Journalists are seldom regarded by the rest of society as particularly nice or admirable people. Scepticism tends to be a necessary characteristic of a good journalist. Scepticism, like idealism, easily turns to cynicism under the relentless pressure of seeing first and up-close the dishonesty of politicians, the avarice of many businessmen, the ruthlessness of publishers and the vacuousness of the celebrities who fill so much media time and space. At worst they invade privacy and invent stories to promote themselves or in response to publishers' requirements.

So the sudden death in Bali on February 27 of long-time Hong Kong resident and former Time magazine bureau chief Sandra Burton at the age of 62 was not just a tragedy for her partner, friends and family. It was a huge loss for journalism not just because she was a very good journalist, but because she was free of the negative connotations which so often attach to the profession.

One might have expected someone who was aggressive and bitchy, competing with the gung-ho, hard-swearers and heavy-drinkers around her - particularly in her earlier reporting days when she was a female rarity in the sometimes aggressively masculine world of foreign correspondents. Or, alternatively, she might have been expected to exploit gender to the full. But she was none of these. She was extraordinarily courteous, fair-minded and intellectually honest. She was sociable and warm without being obtrusive or showy, always interested in people around her, always keen to learn new things and discuss new ideas. She worked extraordinarily hard, driven not so much by ambition but by a need to be meticulous, accurate and fair. She thought well of almost everyone and it was no chance that she chose as her companion of 20 years another equally intelligent, kind and conscientious person, journalist, and consultant and scholar, Robert Delfs.

She set a standard in journalism which was high even 20 years ago and seldom reached by today's weekly magazines. Indeed, her early retirement from the staff of Time five years ago was partly driven by frustration with what she saw as a decline in its standards. She opted instead to be an independent writer, and particularly to write another book.

She wanted to write about what she discovered from research rather than be part of a system in which editors defined the story and then used correspondents to find the facts and quotes to fit their thesis, or conform to the expectations of the readers, then use rewrite desks to assemble the product. Writers, she believed, should take responsibility for their stories. No journalism is wholly unbiased. Journalists must choose from a vast array of facts and theories. But Sandy knew that responsibility lay in the first place to be judged as fair in those countries and among those people she was writing about. She was a teacher to many journalists by example, not only of dedication but of a rare patience with those who worked with or under her.

This was never more clearly shown than in her coverage of the Philippines. In 1983, she accompanied exiled Philippine opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino back to Manila and his death at the hands of a gunman as he stepped from his plane at the airport now named after him. Her tape-recording of the shooting and her reports were to be crucial pieces of evidence of events that day. Her honesty and accuracy were unimpeachable.

Despite thus becoming, by chance, a player in events, she did not let it divert her from covering Philippine events as dispassionately as circumstances allowed. Everyone got a little carried away by the euphoria of the "People Power" revolution against Ferdinand Marcos, but Sandy less than most, even though she became a good friend of the new president, Ninoy's widow Cory. While other correspondents relaxed, she would be out extending her circle of contacts and friends and so getting the insider stories. They were also sources for her book The Impossible Dream, by far the most accurate and interesting account of the Philippines' dramatic events of the 1980s.

Likewise, as head of Time's Beijing bureau during the drama of China in 1989 and the horrors of the June 4 killings, her dedication to facts and good sense prevailed. She was never a combat journalist, but when firing began around Tiananmen she showed more resolve to stay to find the facts than some veterans of the Lebanese civil war. She never lost her sense of proportion, never quite let reasonable emotion carry away her writing.

The same is true when she was bureau chief in Hong Kong from 1990 through the 1997 handover; she did not allow the liberal instincts of a normal American to ignore political realities facing a small society with a giant neighbour. She had friends and contacts all over, including among tycoons who knew of, or sensed, her integrity.

In short, she taught by example what journalism should be about, and about how journalists should conduct themselves - if they wished to be liked, trusted and respected.






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