Old engagements

Lost my Internet connexion just after accidentally uploading this. Now I have
it back, I have tried to fix the piece, for I was not finished with it.


I am in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, in June 1972. Well, really I am not, gentle reader. Rather I am glancing at a ragged old notebook, which I should have pitched decades ago. It has risen to the surface of a dry sea of papers, a raft of dust and nostalgia. Forty-six years have gone by! Who scribbled all this pretentious nonsense? Me, I’m afraid. My best excuse is that I was not quite twenty. (I don’t suppose that will work any more.)

A short plump Welshman is pacing his office, his hands as if tied behind his back. He is Derek Davies, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review — a weekly I once held in admiration; a constellation of brave dedicated underpaid journalists, of many nationalities; who had sometimes got the magazine banned, or themselves locked up, in the countries from which they were reporting, what they earnestly (and often wrongly) believed to be true. Decidedly the best newsmagazine in Asia; now long extinct. It was also a late relic of the colonial era, a creature not only of “old Asia hands,” but of Fabian aspirations descending from the London School of Economics. (Oh, gentle reader, the men who held dominion over palm and pine were progressive to the core.)

We were discussing contemporary journalism. Rather, Mr Davies was discussing this, as he paced; I was listening politely.

“I have grown very tired of journalisme engagé,” he asserted.

He was agreeing with something I had not quite said, about the tone and posturing I had witnessed among journalists in Vietnam, on a mission that had little to do with reporting. These were hacks indifferent to the truth, incurious about their sources, vain, self-serving, committed only to good salaries and scoring political points. Though I was very young, I was already jaded from having watched them concoct dramatic phantasies, in the hope these would pass for front page news, and win them Pulitzers. Yet few were as bad as their editors, back home, who added the finishing touches.

(I made an exception for the photographers, who risked their skins in the field. Often they were surprisingly rightwing. This was because they’d had the opportunity to stare Communism in the face, and understood what the Americans were fighting. Whereas the writers, romanticizing the Viet Cong, strayed seldom from the comforts of Saigon.)

Mr Davies knew all this. He told me several ear-curling stories, without mentioning his own correspondents. There were decent folk among journalists, to be sure, but the whole trade seemed to be falling into the hands of political operators. This is what made the “Feer” (as it was known) so necessary. It was trying to get some things right; trying to explain why things were the way they were. This made it more informative than, say, Time magazine, or Newsweek — as much “fake news” then as today, though in those days a little more sophisticated.

Not journalism, only journalisme engagé — Mr Davies said this could be the future. Though light by disposition (the author of such amusing “Traveller’s Tales”), for a moment he was dark. He described a spirit of malice; an overwhelmingly destructive attitude of mind; and deriving from that, a terrible, a purposeful blindness. The engaged journalist can no longer see what is right before his eyes. He makes no concession to realities. He is a political propagandist, for very dark causes. An apparatchik; a fifth columnist; an enemy of civilization, poisoning from within.

This is hyperbole, I thought. (For I was not quite twenty.) It can’t be that bad. Nor is it likely to get any worse.

But it was, and it did.