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The challenges of being a writer called Geoff Dyer

When you’re a writer trying to find interesting topics to cover, it helps if there’s not another writer with exactly the same name.

Writer Geoff Dyer - no, not that one - talked about his work at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Writer Geoff Dyer – no, not that one – talked about his work when he appeared at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

This has proved both detrimental and beneficial over the years, says author Geoff Dyer – although whether the same can be said for the Financial Times reporter Geoff Dyer is a mystery.

“I feel I should articulate the disappointment that some of you may have felt when it turned out that it was this Geoff Dyer and not the other one,” he said, adding: “Our lives have really overlapped to an embarrassing degree.”

The Geoff Dyer who spoke at the November 1 club lunch (entitled Not a Reporter’: A Lunch with Writer Geoff Dyer) is the author of four novels and numerous non-fiction books – some of which have won literary awards – including travel books Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It.

One of his other books, Another Great Day at Sea, detailed his short time spent on American aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush on active service in the Iranian Gulf – a job that was originally commissioned with the other Geoff Dyer in mind, and Dyer’s only attempt at ever being a reporter.

“For me it was, in some ways, the most boring book I’ve ever written, for a very simple reason. It was a bit like doing that most basic kind of journalism whereby you go and stay at a lovely please, you have the experience and then you write up your feelings about it. I had this amazing experience, it was absolutely incredible, so fascinating, then all I had to do really was transcribe the experience which is almost exactly what I’m not interested in doing as a writer. I’m not a reporter.

“It was only really quite late in the day that I started to enjoy it as I could put more and more of a stylistic spin on it,” Dyer said.

A man with a self-deprecating sense of humour, Dyer recalled amusing anecdotes from his career, including the time when he was commissioned by publishers to write a book on tennis but ended up turning in a book on the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.

Watch the full event here.

Hong Kong journalists: here’s how a Lion Rock Spirit Fellowship could get you into the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Applications are now open for a fellowship to spend two terms at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Photo: Global Initiative Applications are now open for a fellowship to spend two terms at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Photo:Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Are you a journalist resident in Hong Kong with a minimum of five years’ experience? Do you want to take part in a unique opportunity to learn more about the world’s media industry from some of the best in the business?

Applications are now open for the Lion Rock Spirit Fellowship, which will see one journalist spend two terms at the world renowned Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism – part of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford – which runs a series of Fellowships open to journalists from different corners of the globe in a range of specialisms. The Fellowship is open to journalists resident in Hong Kong.

If you’re successful in your application, you’ll spend two terms (six months, starting in January 2018) in historic Oxford, at one of the oldest and most renowned universities in the world. You’ll gain in-depth knowledge and insight into the rapidly changing media industry as you attend seminars given by high-level industry experts, academics and thought leaders. And you’ll work with an experienced Oxford academic supervisor to produce a piece of academic research of publishable quality.

You’ll also expand your network as you work alongside a diverse peer group made up of journalists from all over the world. Trips to news organisations, which in the past have included Thomson Reuters, The Financial Times, The BBC and The Guardian, mean you’ll gain insights into how many of the UK’s industry leaders are evolving their practice in a dynamic world.

The deadline for applications is midnight on Friday 28 July 2017.

Newly established in 2015, the Lion Rock Spirit Fellowship for a journalist resident in Hong Kong is founded and sponsored by Sharon Cheung, herself an alumna of the Fellowship Programme (2004-5). The Fellowship covers Programme fees, a modest living allowance while in Oxford and return travel expenses to the UK.

More details on how to apply here can be found here.

Keith Richburg: In this digital age we need to get back to good, old-fashioned journalism

Keith Richburg recalls pivotal moments from his long career during the club lunch Keith Richburg recalls pivotal moments from his long career during the club lunch

Put down your devices, get out reporting and speak to real people: that was the advice of renowned foreign correspondent and former FCC president Keith Richburg as he addressed members at a lively club lunch exploring the internet’s effect on press freedom.

The former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, who is now director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at HKU, said that while the digital revolution brought huge benefits in terms of instant access to news events, it also meant that journalism was suffering. Trying to be first with news is affecting the basic tenets of journalism, such as fact checking, he said.

“Lack of time is the enemy of journalists,” he told a packed meeting.

In a career spanning four decades, Richburg spoke of the rise of social media and how it had changed the way in which news organisations operate. He said that ‘people power’ uprisings in South East Asian countries including the Philippines during the 1980s had led him to form the opinion that other less open countries would follow. As the internet held democracies to account around the world, so it would also happen in China, he thought.

“But I was wrong,” he admitted.

Keith Richburg at the FCC. Keith Richburg at the FCC.

Richburg returned to Hong Kong in time for the handover in 1997. He was also FCC president at the time. As it turned out, the fear and angst of before the handover faded and, for a journalist, the lack of drama meant the handover story also faded quickly.

“The story of 1997 turned out to be the beginning of the Asian Economic Crisis,” he said. “It quickly led primarily to currency devaluations and a loss of faith in governments across the region. It also led to an upsurge of the kind of people-power movements that I thought I was going to see earlier [following People Power in the Philippines].

“You will recall it led to huge street demonstrations in Jakarta which eventually led to the fall of Suharto and the Reformasi movement in Indonesia; in Thailand it led to an outpouring of protests against the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. He was toppled and the people pushed for what became known as the people’s constitution that was going to institutionalise change in Thailand.

“We were all swept up in this idea that the economic crisis was going to change the Southeast Asian political landscape.”

Richburg said that at the end of 1997 he wrote: ‘Just as democracy swept through Latin America and the former communist states of East Europe… East Asia too is in the midst of what many are calling a slow but steady move towards pluralism and openness.’

“I was wrong,” he said. “And a lot of what I wrote about has now been reversed in some countries – Thailand for example.”

When Richburg first went to China in 2009, through blogs and Weibo coverage he heard an obscure story about an entrapment operation looking for illegal taxis. So he went to Shanghai and found thousands of people protesting which led to the government backing down.

“I remember thinking ‘something has changed in China’; evidenced by the fact that I could hear about this hundreds of miles away and that the government actually responded to the Weibo pressure,” he said.

This led Richburg to focus on what was happening in China’s online world. “There’s the story of the blogger who looked at official photos where he focused on their wrists to see what watch they were wearing; pricing them and then matching that to officials’ salaries – disciplinary action followed for the officials.” Another blogger did the same for officials carrying handbags and brief cases into the National People’s Congress.

“It was sort of a people’s campaign against corruption,” he said. “I consider this as the free and open Weibo period where people could speak out to power and news could filter through. I thought it was never going to change back again – I was wrong.”

He cited two events in 2011 as having such a profound effect on the Chinese government as to give birth to Internet censorship as we know it today. The Arab Spring, which unfolded on social media as much as it did on an international news level; and the Wenzhou high-speed train crash, which the Chinese government moved to censor as soon as it happened; were two events that led to the government taking a hard line against Internet use.


“This really shook up the regime in China. What I did not anticipate was how effective they would be at this [censorship],” he said of the government’s Great Firewall and the many thousands of people it employs to ensure free speech is stunted, and its own propaganda is spread to “occupy the heights, to occupy this space”.

Richburg thinks his early predictions that the Internet would bring democracy to China and Hong Kong were most likely incorrect because “what’s happening here in Asia does not fit any model that we have had here before. A growing middle class makes countries more democratic was the model I studied. However,  China, and Thailand for that matter, has turned that around, where the new middle class want stability rather than democracy”.

Richburg said that back in 2000, President Clinton said that controlling the Internet would be like nailing Jello to the wall. “The jello is definitely sticking to the wall.”

Sticking to the theme of incorrect predictions, Richburg said that he had believed that incoming president Xi Jinping would usher in an era of less stringent controls on the people of China.

“Another one I got wrong,” he said, adding: “I remember writing that everyone was anticipating that Xi Jinping would be seen as a breath of fresh air. We all thought ‘wow, it’s going to be terrific when Xi Jinping takes over’”. Instead, he said, colleagues were lamenting the era of Hu Jintao.

When asked by an audience member what he thought of the rise of Wikileaks, Richburg said that data dumps still needed journalists to make sense of the information and put it out to the audience. He added that he thought that organisations such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which released the Panama Papers, were the future of journalism. “That is where I think we are heading. That is a model for the future.”

Richburg said that despite being wrong about the Internet in China and the notion that after 1997 it would be Hong Kong who changed China rather than the other way around – with China more interested in pushing One China rather than One Country, Two Systems – “in my defence I would say that I was in good company”.

He said that being naturally an optimist, he saw three grounds for optimism:

First, the level of political interest and engagement in Hong Kong which he hadn’t seen before, particularly the increasing engagement by young people.

Secondly, “I see all these new news websites, blogs and media platforms – not just in Hong Kong. Few are making money, but they are trying and should have our support.”

Third, the students he is teaching. “I am very excited to see so many being excited about journalism, particularly the numbers coming from the mainland – many of whom are journalists who are here to learn best practice in journalism.

“They are the ones who will be telling China’s story. So to arm them with fairness and objectivity for the future makes my decision to change hats [from journalism to academia] worthwhile.”

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