Francis Moriarty: radioman of the people
It’s the green and leafy end of summer in Massachusetts. Soon the leaves will turn into the glorious autumn of New England. One of its sons, American journalist Francis Moriarty, has returned to his roots, continuing to write and report for among others The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, but also spending more time with his family and friends there. And while we wish him well, Moriarty leaves a big hole in terms of his many years of work for press freedom and the Human Rights Press Awards (HRPA), and his political analysis and news coverage on radio.
During the many elections he covered during his time in Hong Kong, both local and within Southeast Asia, Moriarty would talk as a radio journalist for the layman listener. He prided himself on ensuring that issues were well explained. And as I can attest as a presenter on RTHK Radio 3’s evening programme, Newswrap, he was a master at the on-the-spot two-way. “What’s happening at Legco, Francis?” and off he’d go, giving both colour and precise detail, so that even the novice listener understood functional constituencies and “Super Seats”. At press conferences, government ministers and legislators all knew the man who did the RTHK news beat for 19 years.
Mike Weeks, FCC member and a senior news producer and presenter of RTHK Radio 3’s morning news programme “Hong Kong Today”, first met Francis Moriarty at Commercial Radio and then would work with him for years often outside or at Legco. “Francis is a great commentator and a great person to have on live. When you sent him along to something, he was the sort of person, when there was a major announcement — the budget, policy address — I’d have Francis down there to ask questions, but also to come on and give his views.
“He’d also come on every Monday morning as a political commentator to give his views on what had happened in Hong Kong politics that week and I know from a number of listeners that they found his views interesting and balanced and entertaining.
“I think he knows a huge amount about local politics. I remember covering an FCC event and Francis was on the Board and the then FCC president introduced him as ‘that’s Francis over there who knows more about Hong Kong politics than anyone would want to’.”
Moriarty was always generous with his time in the newsroom, says Weeks, helping young reporters and sharing his anecdotes.“He has one of those minds which recalls conversations and details. Just before he left we did a piece together on 20 years since the handover and he was recalling details like they were yesterday. He spoke very well, he was brilliant at painting a picture.”
“I first met Francis in early 2012, at a small gathering of international journalists hosted by the [then] Chief Executive-elect CY Leung. It wasn’t going well,” says FCC president Juliana Liu. “CY was circumspect and not terribly quotable. But then Francis started asking about CY’s background. In his inimitable way, he cajoled CY into talking about his climb to the top, starting from the 1980s! Of course, Francis’ main legacy at the FCC is the Human Rights Press Awards. But I will always remember how he can really get people to open up, even if they don’t entirely want to.”
FCC member Joyce Lau, the director of media and communications at NGO Civic Exchange, recalls: “Francis co-founded the Human Rights Press Awards in 1996, during a period of concern about political freedoms leading up to the 1997 handover. This was before my time — but I know he was considered one of the top political commentators who bridged colonial and post-97 Hong Kong.
I will always remember how he can really get people to open up, even if they don’t entirely want to.
“I met him when I was writing a story about press freedom in Hong Kong — and everyone told me that he was the expert to interview. He became a close friend, and also introduced me to the FCC and the HRPA — two organisations that have become very important to me.
“The HRPA was far less polished then. I remember Francis carrying a big cardboard box of paper entries — newspapers, magazines, journals, photo prints — to CopyKat for Xeroxing. Then before each award ceremony, we’d sit at his kitchen table and write by hand the winners’ names on the certificates. This is a bit of trivia about Francis — he does very good calligraphy.”
Moriarty’s late father served in the Second World War and the Korean War, before returning to the US and dying at the young age of 44. As the sole surviving son of a veteran, he was not conscripted to fight in Vietnam but became a very vocal opponent of the war. Before his arrival in Hong Kong in 1989, Moriarty covered stories including the assassination of San Francisco gay rights advocate Harvey Milk, a friend; in 1978, the last Israeli-occupied town, Yamit, on the Sinai Peninsula before it was handed over to the Egyptians, when Moriarty was smuggled in a blanket in a Bedouin truck. He worked in Berlin in the late 1980s, and, like something out of a John Le Carré novel, was watched by a man in a trench coat standing under a lamppost.
Moriarty arrived in Hong Kong on April 15, 1989, coincidentally the day senior mainland official Hu Yaobang died. He was seen as non-corrupt and his death helped spark the pro-democracy demonstrations that would lead to the Tiananmen massacre.
It was the tens of thousands of people standing in silent protest in the pouring rain outside the then-offices of the Xinhua News Agency in solidarity with the demonstrators in Berlin that led to Moriarty’s decision to stay. He would join RTHK in 1995 where he covered some great stories: reporting on 9/11 after accompanying then chief executive Donald Tsang on a trip to the US; and every Philippine election in the post-Marcos era apart from that of the current president Rodrigo Duterte.
He enjoyed the Legco meetings in its former home, the Old Supreme Court building. He describes how the current building is all about security, whereas previously legislators were much more accessible from where the reporters were sitting. “You could say: ‘Psst Jasper [Tsang Yok-sing], psst Martin [Lee], pssst Emily [Lau]’,” and they would talk to him afterwards. Or the reporters would run round to the exit to catch legislators, or the last governor Chris Patten.
Cecil Wong, a senior producer at Radio 3, worked with Moriarty for more than a decade. “He’s a singular talent in Hong Kong broadcasting. He would open his mouth and nuggets of gold would fall out seemingly completely effortlessly. He gets into Aceh in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami [December 26, 2004]. He was doing a live piece where there were lots of bodies lying on a beach. And in real time, he was walking, and he was walking as he was counting the bodies. He kept going for one, two, three minutes… for what seemed like an awkwardly long time for a radio piece, but at the end, it really worked, because just listening to it, you could see the scale of what had happened. But even on dry and mundane news in Hong Kong, he could package it up in a way that anyone could understand.”
Joyce Lau says that while she’s happy to see Moriarty settle back into New England, “Hong Kong media and politics will be missing a very strong and often rambunctious voice!”
Champion of press freedom
While Francis Moriarty is best known within the FCC as co-founder of the Human Rights Press Awards, he had always been a strong advocate for free speech and press freedom issues from the early 1990s. He became the first chairman of the FCC’s Press Freedom Committee in 1995 and remained in that post for many years.
For HRPA’s 20th anniversary in 2016, Moriarty wrote about the early days of the Press Freedom Committee and how HRPA came about.
“The atmosphere of the Club in the early 90s was not as openly supportive of taking public stands on free speech and free press issues as it is these days. Of course, there have always been individuals, including past presidents and Board members (Associates among them), who’ve bravely stood up for these issues at critical moments. But taking such stands in those pre-handover days could at times be a somewhat lonely proposition. China was already casting a long shadow and Hong Kong’s future was uncertain. Without the security blanket of the departing colonial administration, many individuals were weighing their personal and business interests vis a vis the soon-to-be-incoming order.
READ MORE: Francis Moriarty in his own words
“The Club had already been issuing occasional statements on relevant issues on a sort of ad hoc basis. It was evident that there would be increasing need to monitor press freedom issues, so I raised the idea of a press freedom committee with then president Hans Vriens, who immediately agreed and asked if I would chair it (the traditional punishment for proposing something). This by no means put an end to the often heated, sometimes bruising discussions on the Board over issuing statements, but this committee provided a place for discussion outside the Board and affirmed our commitment to defending journalists’ values and rights.”
It was in this atmosphere that the idea of the first arose in mid-1994. Moriarty also explained, in part, why he was reluctant initially to carry the idea forward when Robyn Kilpatrick, then chair of Amnesty International Hong Kong, suggested it.
“When we met I did not yet know what I would quickly come to realise, that Robyn was not just someone with an idea, but a force of nature. Robyn explained the idea of creating press awards similar to the prestigious awards given by Amnesty in Britain.
“I nodded politely while mentally tabulating all the reasons why we should not go near this proposal with a bargepole. Clearly this idea had to be stopped in its tracks. But how? I was beginning to sense Robyn’s determination, which was a little scary.
“Obviously, I said such a venture… couldn’t succeed without the involvement of local journos, but would they support something with the words ‘human rights’ up front? (I was asking myself the same question about the FCC as well.)
“Robyn agreed to take it away and I — relieved — thought that was the end of that. However, a week later Robyn came back, saying she had put the idea to Daisy Li. then chair of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association. To my amazement Daisy and the HKJA backed it. ‘Well,’ asked Robyn, ‘can we count on you?’ Sometimes you have to know when you are beaten. The Board backed the idea — also to my surprise — and a joint committee of the FCC, HKJA and Amnesty was formed.”
And 21 years later…