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Obituary: A Toast to Ian Verchere

By Philip Bowring

Ian Verchere, who died on 17 July in England aged 83, was one of the most agreeable and versatile journalists I have known. A restless enthusiasm and a wide variety of intellectual interests took him to many places, but he started out in Hong Kong doing his national service in the army in the late 1950s which led to his first job as a sports reporter on the South China Morning Post. Then it was off to La Sorbonne in Paris for two years to perfect his French, which led to a job as tour manager for Thomas Cook and a great deal of travel around Europe; he also spoke passable Spanish having studied in Barcelona.

The travel bug and journalism merged when the travel trade’s premier journal, Travel Trade Gazette, hired him. Ian then became the editor of Asia Travel Trade (ATT) following a chance meeting at a Singapore travel conference in 1972 with the publisher, bringing him back to Hong Kong. I arrived in the then-colony the following year and we quickly became friends. When he hired Murray Bailey to join him at ATT, Ian persuaded me to let Murray share my flat.

Ian was by then editing Insight, a monthly business-focused magazine which was, at least for a while, a journalistic success even if not a commercial one. Its in-depth look at business was a first for English-language monthly journalism in 1970s Hong Kong, a period that saw a great flowering of regional journalism with the launch of Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek and the Asian Wall Street Journal, among others. ATT and Insight gave him great opportunities to travel in the region and satisfy his wide and ever-growing interests.

From the May 1979 issue of The Correspondent magazine.

While living in Stanley, Ian also took up sailing a Hobie – a small catamaran which he launched off the beach at To Tei Wan. I was also living in Stanley, and also had a dinghy which I kept on the main beach, so I saw Ian quite often – though we did not make a habit of visiting the Smugglers Inn, then strictly for the squaddies from Stanley Fort.

In 1979 Bank of America lured Ian away from journalism with a job in Tokyo as vice president of corporate communications. He worked there for five years, then moved to New York. But journalism remained his first love and he eventually returned to London, working for Janes’ aviation magazines, the Economist Intelligence Unit and The European newspaper (which made a valiant but failed effort (1990-1998) to persuade English-language readers to learn more about what was happening in Europe). He also freelanced for numerous national dailies.

Ian went on do much sailing and travelling in Europe, the Caribbean, the US and across to Fiji. His adventures in Fiji led to a semi-autobiographical novel, Mugged in Tahiti, a tale of fun and games in the South Pacific. He also wrote Sailing into American History, a journey along the east coast’s Intracoastal Waterway which shed light on the early decades of the US.

The avid traveller was also very much at home in Buckinghamshire where I last saw him for lunch at a pub on the Grand Union canal. A memorial service was held at St Mary the Virgin, Ivinghoe, on 10 August 2021, followed by drinks at The Old Swan in Cheddington. I drank a toast to his memory at the Smugglers Inn.

Remembering Jonathan Mirsky

By Stephen Vines

Jonathan Mirsky was never a conventional journalist, nor conventional anything else. He died in London in September at the age of 88. 

For many years he was among the best known China watchers in the hacking business and won the British Press Awards International Reporter of the Year title in 1989 for his Tiananmen massacre coverage in The Observer

In Beijing he was “rewarded” with a savage beating at the hands of the police while covering the protests.

He later moved to The Times and was based in Hong Kong from 1993 to 1998. Towards the end, Mirsky fell out with the paper’s increasingly accommodating attitude towards Beijing ordered by owner Rupert Murdoch, who had big ambitions for expanding business in China.

Mirsky became a familiar figure at the FCC, where a lack of alcoholic consumption and an enthusiasm for discussion – not forgetting an impressive stock of Jewish jokes – marked him out as a not so run-of-the-mill member.

Mirsky, or Minsky as I called him after he was mistakenly identified as such by aristocratic Times Editor William Rees-Mogg, came to journalism through the circuitous route of academia and never quite lost his affection for the long form preferred in universities.

I got to know him back in the 1980s when we were both working for The Observer in London. He was an eccentric character in a newsroom where eccentricity was the norm. At the time I was engaged in the hard-edged area of labour reporting, while Mirsky was pontificating on China from afar. 

Infuriatingly to us hacks who thought that the only kind of reporting that mattered came from on-the-spot observation, he managed to produce superb and highly readable analysis which often outdid the work of Beijing-based correspondents.

When we were later both based in Hong Kong, we occasionally joined forces for interviews. It was an exasperating experience as Mirsky liked to be discursive and, with his genuine interest for people and what made them tick, would spend a great deal of time talking to the interviewees about their lives, while I was impatient to extract the news line of the day.

The Mirsky method often worked far better than the more conventional news-gathering approach, and he made firm friends with many of the people he interviewed. Among them were the Dalai Lama, who wrote to him shortly before his death, and Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last Governor – a combination of friendships likely to confirm the worst misgivings of an ever-suspicious government in Beijing.

Mirsky came from an aggressively secular intellectual leftist New York Jewish family and quickly graduated towards left-wing politics both as a student and an academic. It was this leftism that led him to become one of the early visitors to China in 1972 when the regime was keen to cultivate fellow travellers.

It would however be inaccurate to describe Mirsky as an apologist for the regime, because a sharp eye for the reality of Mao’s China and an uncontainable independence of mind defied such a simple characterisation.

In later years, most especially after Tiananmen, he became a prominent critic and was banned from entering the PRC. To describe Mirsky as being somehow “anti-China” would be a gross misconception because he had a deep love of all things Chinese and almost certainly a deeper knowledge of China’s culture and history than many of the most avid “patriots” who flaunt their love of the nation these days.

Above all Jonathan Mirsky was a mensch. It’s a Yiddish term that covers everything from friendship to humour to kindness yet is still inadequate to convey the true nature of the man.

Military Conflict in the South China Sea Remains an Unlikely Outcome – Justice Antonio T. Carpio

Tensions and territorial disputes in the South China Sea are unlikely to result in warfare because of the Philippines’ mutual defence treaty with the United States, said former Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio. 

“The Chinese know that they cannot afford to go to war with the Philippines,” Justice Carpio told FCC President Keith Richburg during a Zoom discussion on Monday night. “The last thing China would want is to give the US a legal excuse to intervene in the South China Sea dispute.”

Justice Carpio, who helped the Philippines win its landmark ruling at the Hague in July 2016, said that China’s strategy rests on intimidating other nations. He described the country’s mindset as “China will win the South China Sea without firing a single shot.”

He sharply criticised President Rodrigo Duterte’s comments regarding the South China Sea dispute during his final State of the Nation Address hours earlier. Duterte had reiterated his passive approach to the territorial conflict, asking “Do you want war against China?”

“We laugh at that because nobody’s talking of war in the South China Sea dispute,” Justice Carpio said. “That’s the reason we went to the Hague, because war is not an option.”

He said Duterte’s comments were misleading, and that the president has “become the spokesperson of China” by arguing that enforcing the ruling will lead to a military conflict. 

Duterte is currently finishing out his final term, and presidential elections are due in 2022, but Justice Carpio said he did not believe that the South China Sea issue or relations with China would be major issues for most Filipino voters.

Watch the full discussion here:

“In order to have a democracy, you must share a common set of facts” – Marty Baron

The proliferation of online disinformation sites purporting to be legitimate news has created an incredibly difficult and hostile environment for journalism, said Marty Baron, former executive editor of The Washington Post, in a discussion moderated by FCC President Keith Richburg. 

“Consumption of media is now more polarised than it probably ever has been, and that’s not a great result for us,” Baron said. “Because in order to have a democracy, you have to share a common set of facts.” 

He said that increased education around media literacy and journalists being more transparent about their reporting were both necessary steps to combat the unchecked spread of disinformation. 

Asked if President Trump had been successful in sowing distrust against the media, Baron said yes but acknowledged that Trump’s cries of ‘fake news’ had not been the sole cause. 

“Approval and trust in the media was declining well before that, but he accelerated and reinforced it,” Baron said. “Sadly, he accomplished what he wanted to accomplish, disturbingly so, and we’re going to be dealing with that for decades to come.” 

During the discussion, Baron was asked about Post reporter Felicia Sonmez’s suspension and ban from covering sexual assault stories, with viewer Wayne Ma submitting the question, “Do you regret those decisions, what was the original thinking behind them and what has the Post done to ensure such incidents don’t happen again?” 

Baron said he did not want to comment on the case specifically but added “I don’t have any regrets.” As he was talking to the FCC, Sonmez filed a lawsuit in Washington D.C. against the Washington Post and several individuals including Baron.

Watch the full discussion below:

Income Disparity, Environmental Concerns Biggest Challenges Facing Chinese Communist Party – Eric X. Li

China’s income disparity and environmental degradation are the biggest challenges currently facing the ruling Chinese Communist Party at the 100th anniversary of its founding, said Shanghai-based venture capitalist and political scientist Eric X. Li, who vigorously defended the party’s style of government while expressing doubts about liberal democracies around the world.

“Liberal societies should learn from the party state in China,” Li said. “The party state in China has been very good at self-criticism – that’s why they reinvent themselves. Liberal societies have been failing at that for decades.”

In a spirited Zoom webinar moderated by FCC President Keith Richburg, Li said the CCP had embarked on its third “reinvention” since winning power 72 years ago and transitioning to a government party and then embarking on an openness and reform policy in 1979. This latest reinvention, he said, is driven by a desire to tackle income inequality and achieve a more “balanced growth.” He added that a focus on repairing the environment was a second major priority.

He said that Western countries such as the United States need to be less arrogant, then went on to dismiss the suggestion that the CCP needs to legitimize its rule through elections or referendums because such processes have caused dysfunction and paralysis in liberal democracies.

“I think democracy needs a new set of measurements,” Li said. “I think democracy needs to be measured by outcome, not procedure.”

Asked why the CCP has little tolerance for dissent or criticism, Li countered that there is plenty of debate and difference of opinion in China, including among the party leadership. But he argued that the dissent found in liberal societies has no place in China.

“Just look at the countries that have it: they’re not being governed very effectively, they are polarized, their people hate each other, their media hate each other,” Li said. “We don’t want that.”

He also defended the more assertive, sometimes bombastic, stands by Chinese officials on social media — sometimes referred to as “Wolf Warrior diplomats” — saying Westerners were simply not used to Chinese standing up and loudly speaking back against criticism. 

“They’re seeing their country being demonized by Western politicians and media, and they’re reacting to it for the first time in many decades,” Lis said. “You’d better get used to it.”

Aside from issues of income inequality and the environment, Li argued the CCP needs to steer younger generations away from populism and nationalism toward “productive socialism” and “healthy patriotism.”

“If it can do this, it will deliver on the material and spiritual aspirations of China’s new generations and, as a result, stay in power for a very long time to come,” Li said. “Success is not assured, but I wouldn’t bet against it.”

Watch the full conversation:

Solidarity Amongst Journalists Needed as Apple Daily Closes – Brian Stelter

On the day that Apple Daily published its last edition following 26 years of operation, CNN’s Brian Stelter said in a webinar hosted by the FCC that journalistic solidarity is needed in challenging moments such as these. 

“Nothing unites journalists more than a threat against a newspaper or a publication or against journalism itself,” Stelter said. “Nothing unites this industry more than a moment like this.”

Speaking to FCC press freedom committee co-chair Eric Wishart, Stelter said that the shuttering of a newspaper like Apple Daily is something that resonates around the world and should be taken note of by an international audience.

“I would say solidarity is a critical component of this,” said Stelter, the anchor of Reliable Sources and author of the newly updated paperback version of Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.

Asked if Apple Daily’s closure would resonate with people in the United States, he said that there would be some awareness but not enough, and that issues of press freedom in general deserve a bigger audience.

“We also have to tell the global story, that this is something that we’re seeing erosion [of] in many countries. All of us, including me, have to work on that,” said Stelter.

Watch the full conversation below:

FCC Clare Hollingworth Fellowship – Applications Open

The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club is accepting applications for the Clare Hollingworth Fellowship, named after the preeminent and path-breaking journalist.

Clare HollingworthMs. Hollingworth had a remarkable career as a foreign correspondent with the scoop of the century as a 27-year-old when she reported on Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Ms. Hollingworth was also a treasured member of the FCC for more than 40 years who made significant contributions to the intellectual and professional life of the FCC.

The Hollingworth Fellowship will honour early career journalists and current journalism school students in Hong Kong. Journalists and journalism students from all fields of professional study are eligible. Applications close on 14 July. The fellowship will run for one calendar year, 1 September 2021 – 31 August 2022.

 

Overview of key features of the fellowship:

  • Complimentary access to all FCC professional talks, official gatherings and conferences (subject to pandemic restrictions);
  • Unlimited access to the FCC facilities including the gym and workroom;
  • FCC monthly dues and the membership fee are waived for the fellowship period; and
  • Networking opportunities with senior newsroom leaders

 

For details on past fellows, please see below:

  1. Jennifer Creery and Tiffany Liang
  2. Mary Hui and Jessie Pang

 

Fellows Requirements and Expectations

  • Fellow to produce and contribute a piece in their field for the FCC (e.g. long-form article for the FCC magazine, The Correspondent (see examples here and here); photographic exhibition for the Bar, video piece for the website) and
  • Fellow will help to present FCC virtual speaker events and assist in the organization of virtual and in person events for journalists. Past FCC Journalism Conference keynote speakers include Maria Ressa, Co-founder and CEO of Rappler; Jean H. Lee, Director, Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and Pulitzer-nominated veteran foreign correspondent and expert on North Korea; Nicole Tung, a Turkey-based photographer and winner of the James Foley Award for conflict reporting.
  • Fellow will actively contribute to the intellectual and professional life of the FCC.

 

Eligibility Criteria

Candidates must meet all of the following criteria to apply:

  • At least two years’ journalism experience with a proven track record of developing stories in any sector or medium. Applications are welcome from candidates from foreign news organisations as well as local news organisations in Hong Kong.
  • Be 30 years of age or under at the date that the fellowship begins.
  • Be a resident of Hong Kong at the time of application and a resident of Hong Kong for the duration of the Fellowship.

 

Application Process and Material

Applicants are required to submit the following for their application in English language by 14 July, 2021. Only chosen candidates will be notified by writing. Late or incomplete applications will not be permitted. All files must be submitted in either PDF or MS Word format to [email protected] with the subject line as follows Attn: first name/last name of applicant, Clare Hollingworth Fellowship application:

  • Two pieces of published work, or in the case of a journalism student, two essays at no more than 2000 words each.
  • A 500-word statement of intent for the piece that the Fellow will contribute to the FCC.
  • Please send via post two sealed written references from suitable referees, e.g. senior editor or journalism school dean again with the same subject line: Attn: first name / last name of applicant, Clare Hollingworth Fellowship application. The reference letters should be sent to The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, North Block, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, Hong Kong. When submitting your application, please note in the covering email that the references have been sent via post. Reference letters should specify how long the referee has known the applicant and in what capacity, comments on the applicant’s potential to make an impact in the field of journalism, and any relevant prior experience.
  • Recent resume of no more than 2 pages.
  • Provide a valid HKID card number.

Hong Kong’s Courts Need to Maintain ‘Focus’ for the City’s Legal System to Endure – Former Judge Henry Litton

Hong Kong’s judiciary has lost its former efficacy and judges need to focus on remedies and practical issues rather than esoteric arguments, said Henry Litton, former judge of the Court of Final Appeal, in an FCC webinar. 

“What I think one needs to do is to really just focus on the actual issues, rather than to give the entire narrative,” Litton said. “What has been happening in a lot of the cases is that the judges really are not focused anymore.”

In his new book The Dance of Folly, or How Theatrics Have Tainted the Rule of Law, Litton argues the judiciary has been weakened over the past two decades by a culture of verbosity and philosophising when what’s needed is a focus on practical matters.

“That is how the rule of law is supposed to work, not dissolving into clouds of words, of theories, of arcane analyses and so on which bear no relationship with the actual issue and problem on the ground,” Litton told FCC Journalist Governor Cliff Buddle.

He outlined five cardinal rules for strengthening the judiciary and rule of law: effective action, discipline of law, ensuring the law has a cutting edge, focusing on remedies and preventing courtrooms from becoming places of debate. 

The former judge, who previously authored Is the Hong Kong Judiciary Sleepwalking to 2047?, said these changes are needed to ensure the survival of the city’s legal system in the coming years. He predicted that a decision would be made in the next five or six years on whether the common law system will be Hong Kong’s governing system beyond June 2047. 

The courts adopting a more common sense approach would be seen as a favourable move by Beijing, Litton said, noting that the central government will ultimately decide the fate of the judiciary. He argued that a straightforward and effective judiciary would have a better chance of survival.

“For stability and prosperity, everyone everywhere would accept that when you have a legal system that actually works and functions, you should not dismantle it and try to replace it because there would be total chaos for many, many years, for generations maybe,” Litton said. 

You can watch the full discussion below.

Independent Journalists Crucial to Exposing the Scale of India’s Coronavirus Catastrophe – FCC Panel

Local and independent reporters have played an essential and often high-risk role in revealing the true scale of India’s CVOID-19 catastrophe while many in the mainstream media have preferred to parrot the government’s narrative, journalists Barkha Dhutt and Rana Ayyub said in an FCC webinar.

They spoke amid a spiralling death count from the virus in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been accused of downplaying the scale of the disaster while failing to provide essentials like oxygen to hospitals and vaccines to the population.

The government’s attempts to defend its response have been amplified by often compliant national media, the speakers said. Meanwhile, journalists reporting from hospitals and cremation sites have been branded “vultures” while Western coverage has been labelled anti-Indian and imperialistic.

“Most of the news channels are run by big investors, big industrialists who are craven and help Narendra Modi with his election campaigning, so you don’t expect them to speak truth to power”, said Ayyub, an investigative journalist and global opinions editor at The Washington Post.

As a result, grassroots reporting has been essential in telling the story, Dutt and Ayyub said in the webinar moderated by FCC First Vice President Eric Wishart. 

Dutt, an opinion columnist with The Hindustan Times and The Washington Post whose father recently died of COVID-19, gave the example of images that emerged of bodies floating in Indian rivers as cremation and burial services became overwhelmed.  

“These have come from people who are not famous journalists, who are just young stringers on the ground”, she said. “Despite the attempts to control big media, technology is liberating and anyone today with a phone and a spine is telling the stories that the world needs to see”.

“I want to acknowledge the work of really vulnerable reporters who do not have health insurance, have no organizational affiliation, these really extraordinary boots on the ground in our smaller towns and in our cities”.

At the same time, local journalists who dare to challenge local authorities live in fear of retribution. 

Ayyub cited the example of a local journalist who sent her videos of 450 funerals in one day but refused to be quoted in an article she was writing for The Washington Post. “The chief minister of the state will make my life sad and miserable, and I will be thrown behind bars”, he told her.

Around 70 people describing themselves as “Concerned and Upset Indians” sent a joint letter to the FCC ahead of the event titled “Please Stop Providing Platform to Anti-Indians” and asking the club to cancel the discussion.

“Such people are completely biased and motivated”, it read, referring to the speakers.

Both Dutt and Ayyub, who have faced online violence including death and rape threats because of their coverage, said they were not surprised by the letter.

“What’s important to stress is that this is organized. Don’t think that this petition is a spontaneous reaction”, Dutt said. “There is now a clear attempt to  deflect the scale and the enormity of what’s happening and create irrelevant side issues.”

“This takes us in a direction where we don’t have to talk about the fact that we are looking at a million more deaths by June, where you don’t have to talk about the fact that bodies are floating down the rivers of rural India”.

“We continue to be targeted for telling our stories, for doing our journalism, for going to cremation and burial grounds and showing you the pictures that have shaken the world”, Dutt said. 

“We are being told we are vultures for feasting off the dead. Because we write for global media, we are being called anti-national. Whereas the true anti-nationalism we are seeing unfold is public relations between privileged over the lives of ordinary Indians”.

Ayyub, who spoke at the FCC’s 2019 journalism conference about the horrendous online violence she has faced, added: “This is how they shut independent voices, especially women journalists. You slut shame us all the time, you call us names, but you cannot silence us like that. So what better way to try to silence us than by calling us anti-Indian?”

Was there anything positive to take from the disaster?

“For the first time I see Indians united and not polarized by this Hindu-Muslim narrative” said Ayyub, who has set up a crowdfunding site to raise money for food and medical aid for the needy. 

“They are united in helping each other out and amplifying each other’s voices, and I think Indians have now realized that this humanity will be the only savior at the end of the day”.

The full discussion can be watched below.

Anti-coup Protests in Myanmar Are Breaking New Ground – Frontier Publisher Sonny Swe

Shibani Mahtani (left) speaks to Sonny She (right)

Protests taking place across Myanmar in the aftermath of the February 1 military coup are unlike any prior demonstrations because of the unity between different generations and the use of technology, said Sonny Swe, co-founder and publisher of Frontier Myanmar, in a Zoom webinar hosted by the FCC. 

“It’s a lot more organised, it’s a lot more tech-savvy and there are three generations working together,” Swe said. “This is a different resistance now.”

The COVID-19 pandemic had forced people in Myanmar to unify and help each other, a trend which has carried over to the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement, which aims to cripple the military through strikes that will weaken the economy. 

“That’s why you see citizens helping each other and helping each other. It comes from the COVID [response],” Swe told FCC Correspondent Governor Shibani Mahtani during the discussion. “This is the positive sign of this country.”

Swe said the junta has been caught off guard by the overwhelming backlash to the coup, and that the military’s way of thinking hasn’t changed in decades. Investor confidence has plummeted in a way it didn’t in past times of social unrest, he said.  

“A lot of people don’t trust in the military regime,” he said. “The strategies they’re using aren’t working obviously.”

Asked to comment on the controversy surrounding CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward’s recent reporting trip to Myanmar, Swe said that it had been misleading to label the story an exclusive – “the only exclusive was getting the permission” to enter the country. 

He understood why a news outlet would accept such a trip, but “CNN should have done the proper homework before she flew into Myanmar”.

“We have the other international news outlets here and also we have local journalists who are risking their lives every day on the street reporting everything”.

As for Myanmar-based media organisations, he said that they were facing an increasingly difficult situation.

“We are trying our best to stay alive at this point,” Swe said. 

Frontier had launched a membership programme before the pandemic and it was picking up, but safety was a major concern.

He described a situation of increasing danger for the journalists he employs, and the steps he’s taken to try to keep everyone safe and minimise harm, including only assigning people to cover their townships so they don’t have to travel. 

Still, the situation grows increasingly dangerous for journalists, and Swe shared the story of one of his journalists in Mandalay who’d been shot in the hand and will likely never regain full function in it, despite having undergone three surgeries already.

“If something like this happens, it ruins someone else’s life,” Swe said. “The only thing I can do is to keep fingers crossed and tell them to be safe, and I don’t know how long we will hold on to this.”

Watch the full event:

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