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In loving memory of John McBeth

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John McBeth, Journalist: 1944-2023

New Zealand-born John McBeth, one of Asia’s pre-eminent journalists with a record of scrupulous and ground-breaking reporting, has died after a short illness. He was 79.

Over a career spanning more than 62 years McBeth’s reporting helped shape events in countries including South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.

I met John as a newbie correspondent at the Far Eastern Economic Review in the early 1990s. He was already a hero of mine.  As an undergraduate in London, I pored over his stories in the Review in the university library. 

His riveting accounts of wars, coups and murky political machinations helped kindle my fascination for Asia that ultimately led me to live and work in the region as a journalist.

John was a blunt-speaking “old school” reporter.  His writing pulled no punches and influenced many of the region’s policy-makers over decades.  His clear explanatory style, often resistant to editing, made his articles easily accessible to locals and foreigners alike in countries where truth was shrouded either by censorship or culturally driven opacity.

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I remember a cover story in the Review on the central role of rich oligarchs in the politics of the Philippines that ran under the banner headline “Bossism.”  We worked many stories together in Indonesia around the fall of President Suharto in 1998.

As the protests erupted in Jakarta and troops fired on students, John sat at the keys of our old office desktop computers bashing out simple but effective prose, while I hovered behind him suggesting more complicated explanations that he sometimes graciously let me insert.

It felt like playing a duet on the piano – he on the bass side of the instrument, me on the discordant black keys.

We were the most unlikely of friends, he would say.  John was born in Whanganui New Zealand on 31 May 1944, the son of a Taranaki dairy farmer. My more exotic background and elite British education often drove us to disagreement on broader issues. What we had in common was a devotion to Asia and to the pursuit of a good story. 

John was fond of saying he had been a journalist for longer than any of us. His first job was on the Taranaki Herald starting in 1962, when I was four years old.  He moved to the Auckland Star in late 1965. He remembered interviewing the Rolling Stones and covering the Beatles on their visit to New Zealand.

He had an early ambition to make his career in London’s Fleet Street, but when the cargo steamer he was on was grounded in Jakarta, he stayed. Stepping ashore he immediately fell in love with Asia and never left. He took pride in being an Asian “lifer” – often chiding many of his colleagues who came to the region for a few years but never stayed.

After spending time in Jakarta and Singapore McBeth settled for fifteen years in Thailand, where he worked for publications including the Bangkok Post, Agence France-Presse, United Press International, London’s Daily Telegraph and the Hong Kong-based Asiaweek.

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McBeth’s early reporting from Thailand focused on the Indochinese refugee crisis and the Vietnam War, writing with passion about the plight of refugees and war victims. He wrote about the Thai pirates who raped and murdered Vietnamese boatpeople.

He was one of the first Western journalists to uncover the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia, often arriving at the border to interview survivors after a long and arduous overnight bus journey from Bangkok.

In May 1979 McBeth joined the staff of the Far Eastern Economic Review, where he covered five coups including the aborted one in Bangkok that killed his close friend, the Australian cameraman Neil Davis in 1985.

McBeth was a larger-than-life member of Bangkok’s hard-living and working international press corps, loving Thailand and its people.  It was in Bangkok that he met his future wife, Yuli Ismartono, a foreign correspondent from Indonesia. 

He wrote analytical pieces and many exclusive reports from Review news bureaus he headed in Bangkok, Seoul, Manila and Jakarta. Whilst in Seoul, collaborating with colleagues Nayan Chandra and Shada Islam, McBeth broke the story that North Korea was developing a nuclear weapon.

While based in Manila McBeth had a leg amputated but he was determined the setback would not impinge on his career and he was soon back writing exclusives for the Review. Yuli helped him through his illness and restored his confidence so he could return to field reporting.

From the end of 2004 until early 2015 John wrote columns for the Singapore Straits Times, specializing in Indonesian and regional affairs. His work has also appeared in The National (Abu Dhabi), the Nikkei Asian Review, the South China Morning Post, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist and more recently the Asia Times.

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McBeth’s 2011 book “Reporter: Forty Years Covering Asia” describes many of his stories. His 2016 book “The Loner: President Yudhoyono’s Decade of Trial and Indecision” reviews the decade that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spent in power.

McBeth was a confidante of many of Asia’s diplomats, politicians and policymakers.

He was a mentor and inspiration to many of the region’s journalists, particularly locals working for local publications and railed against journalists whose writings failed to make clear what was fact and what was opinion. 

He could be an editor’s nightmare, once exploding at a sub-editor at the Review who had cut a reference to something not being a “silver bullet” arguing that Asian audiences wouldn’t get the allusion.

Asia Times editors, on the other hand, seldom received cleaner copy and dared not to move a comma without his kind permission. McBeth’s last file to Asia Times was a personal portrait in which he noted he first arrived in Asia by ship, not plane, and that he was one of the last of a generation of foreign journalists who lived the story and made Asia their home.

He is survived by his wife Yuli Ismartono, a prominent Indonesian journalist. He will be sorely and dearly missed at Asia Times.

(Shawn W. Crispin contributed reporting from Bangkok)

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Source: Asia Times

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