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Me and the Media: FT’s Victor Mallet on his love for journalism

FT's Victor Mallet. Ayesha Sitara FT’s Victor Mallet. Ayesha Sitara

Victor Mallet is a journalist, commentator and author with three decades of experience in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. He is currently Asia news editor for the Financial Times. He is also an FCC board member.

Previously: Reuters

What made you want to work in media?

In my first few days at university I was confronted by a strange, dishevelled man who told me I should be a reporter for the university newspaper, and I shrugged and thought “Why not?”. I eventually became the editor, and he later became a senior British diplomat. Three years later, when it was time to find a job, I looked in horror at a long list of career options and realised there was absolutely nothing else that looked to be as much fun as journalism. I started as a graduate trainee at Reuters and stayed there for five years learning and working in the London head office, France and South Africa. I moved to the Financial Times while I was living in Africa and have been at the FT ever since, with short breaks to write books. The new one about the Ganges is called River of Life, River of Death and comes out in October.

 

It was hard to file from occupied Kuwait after the first couple of days, and when they started seizing hostages, I escaped with some friends across the desert into Saudi Arabia.

What has been a career high point?

It’s hard to beat the excitement of being a reporter for a news agency on the world’s biggest story. As apartheid collapsed in South Africa in the 1980s, we criss-crossed the country interviewing everybody from ANC radicals to white right-wing extremists, from business moguls to landless peasants. There was violence, there was singing, there was emotion. And there was a lot of news. If I remember right, one of my best moments was getting two stories from Cape Town in one day onto the front page of the International Herald Tribune (now the New York Times international edition); one was about the war in Angola and the other about the abolition of an apartheid race law, though sadly the IHT in those days hardly ever bylined the names of agency reporters – so the bylines just said “Reuters”.

What has been a low point?

This job is too much fun for that. Let me give you another (journalistic) high point: landing in Kuwait City in the early hours of August 2, 1990 because I and my then foreign news editor reckoned Saddam Hussein might invade. It turned out his troops had already crossed the border a couple of hours earlier, so I found myself in the middle of a wonderful scoop, made all the sweeter by the fact that almost all my press colleagues and rivals had flown back to London the previous day after a week of nothing much happening. It was hard to file from occupied Kuwait after the first couple of days, and when they started seizing hostages, I escaped with some friends across the desert into Saudi Arabia. I could go on… but we can discuss it in the bar.

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

Learn a foreign language. Then learn another one.

Me and the Media: Francis Moriarty’s career highlights – and a missed golden opportunity

Francis Moriarty was senior political correspondent for RTHK. Photo: realhongkongnews Francis Moriarty was senior political correspondent for RTHK. Photo: Apple Daily

Francis Moriarty is a freelance journalist and former Secretary & Correspondent Governor of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong.

Previously: Senior Political Correspondent, RTHK; founder of Human Rights Press Awards.

What made you want to work in media?

The media – a term that did not appear in its collective form taking the singular until well into my career – was never that I sought to join. Not unlike other callings, journalism came out to find me. A nun teaching the eighth grade at St. Mary the Morningstar school volunteered me as the editor of the class newspaper. That led into being subsequently volunteered, also by the Sisters of St. Joseph, as a competitor at the statewide speech festival in the radio broadcasting category. My voice had not yet changed and I still had peach fuzz. I found myself finishing as a runner-up to a guy who looked like he needed to shave twice a day and sounded like a young Walter Cronkite. It was a crushing experience but a learning one. Several years later, I saw a student-wanted post on a school bulletin board seeking a part-time writer on the local paper’s sports desk. I’m not sure if anyone else even applied, so they hired me. That was exactly 50 years ago and the paper was the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I now write a regular column for them. Such is progress.

What has been a career high point?

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career and have had a lot of high points. Hitchhiking across the United States and ending up in the MJ degree program at U.C. Berkeley was one early high point. Another game-changer was being selected as a visiting fellow in the Journalists in Europe fellowship program in Paris, France, a decade on. This would turn out, years later, to lead me to Hong Kong.

One of the more satisfying career moments was getting sacked as editor a weekly paper in California after doing a lengthy series of articles that really angered some of the paper’s major advertisers. The publisher caved in to the pressure. Though it stung, and felt like a low at the time, it led to my moving from Silicon Valley up to San Francisco, opening a whole new world of opportunities and major stories, including the People’s Temple, the arrival of the Boat People from Vietnam, the rise of the gay political movement and the double assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and gay Supervisor Harvey Milk. One of the more dramatic moments was being in Chicago for the first election of Barack Obama and seeing him and his family on the election night. There’s a fairly lengthy list of other major stories, including 4 June 1989, and the many events leading to Hong Kong’s handover.

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t just do jobs, interesting though they may be, but conceive of a longer-range career and then seek to manage it – while remaining flexible and spontaneous. Also, should anyone ever again offer you the chance to be a full partner in the world’s first computer-game company, this time say yes.

Me and the Media: Elaine Ng on the challenges of covering the arts in Hong Kong

Elaine Ng. Elaine Ng.

Elaine W. Ng is the editor and publisher of ArtAsiaPacific, a 24-year old publication dedicated to contemporary art from Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East.

Previously: Hanart TZ Gallery, Videotage.

What made you want to work in media?

My very first job out of university in the mid-1990s was working at Hanart TZ Gallery. It was a pioneer in Hong Kong, focused on promoting contemporary art from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. There was virtually no market for contemporary art, especially from China, back then. As we were hardly selling in those days, the work that my colleagues and I did entailed a lot of research – helping edit the essays, and even assisting museum institutions in the US and Europe in their initial research on Chinese artists. This aspect of conducting research and interviews with artists was appealing, so working on ArtAsiaPacific—one of the two only publications focused on contemporary art from the Asia region (at that time)—was a pretty seamless transition.

 

What has been a career high point?

One highlight of my career was being invited to speak to European central bankers in Florence, Italy, about investing in the arts after the 2008 economic crisis. I wanted to point out that art can flourish with or without a booming art market. The bankers were amazed by the artistic scenes in Asia which I introduced that were dynamic, colourful and fascinating. I even got a handwritten letter afterwards thanking me and ruminating on some of my points that I made by the former governor of Bank of England, Lord Mervyn King.

What has been a low point?

It’s not specifically a low point to me directly, but I think the general atmosphere for publishing and editorial work has not been encouraging, in part as a reflection of politics (all over the world today) along with Hong Kong’s unique situation. It’s also been challenging to find good young art writers and editors in Hong Kong who can work in English, I hope this might change with the evolution of the art scene here, which will attract more talented young people. 

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

I would say go for the difficult route, on a path that will challenge you, which you will grow from. Even if you find yourself with a tough, terrible boss, you can learn something from that experience. An easy job usually leads to boredom and eventually dissatisfaction. If you are young, follow your dreams to the extreme, no excuses. The art world turns out to be pretty dreamy, as well as hard as nails. It is only when you “grow up” that you realise you had very little to lose when you were young, and a whole life ahead of you to gain.

Elaine, right, at the 1998 opening of the Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: Hanart TZ Gallery Elaine, right, at the 1998 opening of the Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: Hanart TZ Gallery

Me and the Media: Freelance business writer George W. Russell

George W. Russell main George W. Russell. Photo: Harry Harrison

George W. Russell, an FCC member since 1988, combines freelance writing (mostly about business) with the pursuit of his interest in the history and practice of journalism as a part-time research assistant at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

Previously: Variety, Newsday, The Australian.

What made you want to work in media?

A favoured aunt taught me to read as a toddler, using the pages of The Herald, a defunct Melbourne evening daily. So my literacy was founded on the news of the day. I was a typical teenager with no clue about the future and I’d done badly in my final year of high school. I was rescued from having to make further decisions by a delightful old hack named Pat Tennison, who ran the cadet course at Southdown Press in Melbourne (part of the Murdoch empire). He saw something no one else could see and offered me job as a copy boy on The Australian.

What has been a career high point?

I’ve never been a true hard news reporter, or a proper foreign correspondent. I’ve kind of worked in trade and other fringe media. But I have fond memories of working for Variety, the US showbiz bible, putting in 20 hours a day editing a daily newspaper at the Cannes film festival and fuelled by pizza and rosé, and driving the Mac page files at high speed along the A8 in a Renault minivan to the printers in Nice. My present life is a high point, too. It’s my third time in Hong Kong and it’s great here with a family I love and helping out at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. It’s inspiring to work with the students and learn new things about media myself.

What has been a low point?

There have been so many. It’s not so much burned bridges as a conflagration of crossings. Another low is when a title has closed on me, and there have been a few of those. Another was thinking I could survive as a freelance editor in Seattle in the 1990s. It was my first experience of watching the dying print media in a small, insular city. I was sleeping in an abandoned car at one point. Another was when a man named Stanley Asimov at Newsday on Long Island who, after I’d done a week’s tryout on the copy desk, suggested I consider a career outside journalism.

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

Accumulate more and better skills and experience. Look beyond what’s happening in your own personal clique and pay more attention to the big media picture. It’s important to be able to readjust your own settings to better fit the market, especially as a freelancer. Go to seminars and conferences, talk to as broad cross-section of society as you can. And I can’t think of how much I’ve made from selling stories that were inspired by an FCC lunch speaker.

Me and the Media: Writer and editor Alex Frew McMillan

Journalist and editor Alex Frew McMillan. Photo CC Kei. Journalist and editor Alex Frew McMillan. Photo CC Kei.

Alex Frew McMillan is a feature writer and editor, the last 13 years specialising in real-estate coverage and business reporting.

Previously: CNN, as a business reporter, and Reuters, as the Asia real-estate correspondent.

Now: Regular contributor to TheStreet.com, and is also the Asia editor of Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. As a free-lancer, he has written for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Forbes, the Economist Intelligence Unit and CNBC.

What made you want to work in the media?

I didn’t want to work in the media at all. I want(ed) to be a novelist! But I have one problem, in that I never write any fiction at all. I have finally accepted that I am a non-fiction writer.

I love the news. I have always had a great and broad general interest. I find many topics interesting and love exploring ideas. And I am not great with routine – I love that news is always different, always changing. Most of all, though, I love taking complex topics and breaking them down in ways that are (with any luck) interesting, understandable and entertaining.

Being a freelancer is hard, and unstable. But I hate working in someone else’s office. I feel I am wasting my life away that way.

What has been a career high point?

Alex Frew McMillan. Alex Frew McMillan.

That is difficult to say. To be honest, the high points are whenever a reader approaches me and asks me a question about a story. I always say that a writer only needs one reader.

There is one strange thing about writing for me. Whenever I finish and file a story, I am sick of it and don’t think it’s any good. Then, later, when I come across an old piece, I realise it’s actually pretty well-written.

And a career low point?

There are so many! I would say that I did not make the most of my time at Reuters. I thought that the job was telling me what to do. I didn’t realise that I needed to tell the job what I wanted to do, and do it.

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t be afraid to take risks. In fact, seek them out. If there’s a question that you are afraid to ask, that is exactly the question you have to ask. And of course, spell everyone’s name right.

Me and the Media: Former Reuters chief David Schlesinger

David Schlesinger when he was Reuters' editor-in-chief. Photo: David Schlesinger David Schlesinger when he was Reuters’ editor-in-chief. Photo: David Schlesinger

David Schlesinger is the founder of Tripod Advisors

Previously: Journalist with Reuters for 25 years, rising to Editor-in-Chief and then Chairman, Thomas Reuters China

Now: Writer and consultant, still active in journalism and the media business

What made you want to work in media?

I needed to support my China habit! And while I dabbled in academia, one wise professor in graduate school pointed out that I liked closure – that feeling of finding something out, making a judgment and moving on (and of course academic work moves at a comparatively glacial pace!). So I became a news service journalist, trying on a minute-by-minute basis to make a sensible narrative out of the world’s chaos. 

What has been a career high point?

An early highlight was being named Reuters China bureau chief — my academic interests and my new profession came together in an exciting and stimulating way. Then, when I became global Editor-in-Chief, it was an extraordinary high to lead an organisation of truly talented and brave people through difficult and challenging times.

And a career low point?

David Schlesinger during his tenure as China bureau chief for Reuters. Photo: David Schlesinger David Schlesinger during his tenure as China bureau chief for Reuters. Photo: David Schlesinger

My time in senior editorial roles coincided with an extremely bloody, deadly and terrifying time for journalism. Too many Reuters journalists died in Iraq, in Israel, in Thailand when I was responsible for the operation – their deaths were far too high a price to pay. The struggle to balance our need as reporters to bear witness and our vital need to stay safe is one we as a profession still haven’t solved.

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

You never can stop pushing – making that extra call, revising that one more time, asking that follow up question. I think that’s the kind of spirit that will survive all the technological and business challenges facing the profession and will always find a reward.

Me and the Media: Ex-BBC News producer Nigel Sharman on his career highs and lows

Nigel Sharman is an FCC associate member governor. Nigel Sharman is an FCC associate member governor.

Nigel Sharman is an FCC associate member governor

Previously: Senior Producer, BBC News, London

Now: Solicitor, Clifford Chance, Hong Kong

What made you want to work in media?

My uncle Berkeley Smith used to run the old Southern Television ITV franchise famous for its Out of Town countryside programme, the precursor to Countryfile. I remember being given a tour of the Southampton studios when I was young and marvelled at the studio in which How! was made. I made it as a BBC television production trainee at the second attempt and worked on programmes such as Breakfast Time, That’s Life (with Esther, Cyril and the amusingly-shaped vegetables) and Newsnight.

What has been a career high point?

Working day-in, day-out with some truly talented and remarkable people, including presenters Martyn Lewis, Peter Sissons and Anna Ford. And, during a short sojourn at ITN, with the wonderful Sir Trevor McDonald, whose overall niceness I remember to this day.

And a career low point?

Berkeley Smith covering the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: BBC Berkeley Smith covering the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: BBC

Being shouted at by an irate John Prescott in the Norman Shaw North Parliamentary studio after Jeremy Paxman asked him, down the line from the studio, questions he didn’t want to be asked. Prescott later made out I had given him an assurance to that effect. I had done no such thing, which taught me a lot about politicians!

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

Keep asking yourself if you are enjoying what you are doing and if you aren’t, do something else. Don’t stay in jobs that don’t make you happy.

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