DC Guy piece today was going to be a trashing of foreign journalists. Instead, upon thinking, DC Guy thought to ask a relevant question about hiring trends of expats across Asia.
Should foreign correspondents - and ex pats in general - speak the local language?
I'm asking because my original piece was going to be called, "Why Foreign Correspondents Suck and What they're Not Telling You about Indonesia".
In my wide-eyed thirties sometime last decade I rocked up to a cocktail-gathering of foreign correspondents in Indonesia, somewhere behind the Mandarin Hotel at the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout. I was all excited, imagining a smoky room full of spies and Year of Living Dangerously reporters. I mingled. I exchanged business cards. I chit-chatted about politics.
At first it seemed cool. One Bule reporter guy in his 60s ranted about Bangkok in the '80s and how pathetic and lazy young journalists were. Cool. Another 40-something guy had just been laid off and was drinking away his severance package in bars in Asia. Cool. Some angry BBC chick was broadcasting her opinions (not so cool, but interesting). But then it struck me.
Most of them are tourists. Almost none of them spoke Indonesian.
"I've got a translator to do that"
said an Australian newspaperman.
"We've got fixers [slaves who set up appointments, get coffee, interns] for that"
said another Australian TV reporter. (A lot of Australians for some reason.) One English wire service reporter was even more blunt: they hire us [ex pats] for our skills - the locals do the language work. (In fairness, he was of Indian origin, not a bule.)
As the evening went on, I realized how little any of these supposed Guy Hamilton (Year of Living Dangerously) types actually cared about their stories. I paid attention and over the next few cocktail nights I realized that the Big Name correspondents rely on the Jakarta Post, Jakarta Globe and wire services to get their views. Maybe a few phone calls here and there to a diplomat, but in general they know much less than you, if you live in Indonesia, or me.
Let's get this straight. They can't understand the TV. They can't understand the radio. They can't read local blogs, websites, or newspapers. All they have is the English language sources. Granted, there's a lot in English. Some email listserve called 'Joyo' apparently collates all the English language reporting and sends it out. One drunk American freelancer told me all he reads is Joyo and that's enough.
Would you trust a White House reporter who didn't speak English?
And why should I listen to a tourist? Why should the rest of the world? I don't think they should. I think the foreign correspondents are generally a week or two behind the local press. I think they miss most of the most important stories. And I think the snootiness and arrogance hides an uncomfortable truth: they don't know what they're talking about.
That's why the Aussie press writes about cheap drug dealers like Schapelle Corby getting busted. It's why the Western wires were obsessed with Bird Flu whilst ignoring current epidemics such as Malaria or Dengue Fever. (Who cares, they're just local brown people?) It's why they sucked up to Indonesia's lame duck President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono when everyone in Jakarta knew he was an armchair general. It's also why they're obsessed with terrorism when traffic jams and bad hospitals are more of a threat to most of the population.
The fixers' version was even more telling. Some of them were kinda hot and came to the cocktail nights. They didn't have much respect at all for their bosses. Sure, they kissed their asses, as we all do. But when it came down to it, it turns out the fixers do the work. They read the local newspapers, watch TV, make the phone calls, set up the appointments. And then bossman or woman walks off with all the credit. Why not just give the job to the local?
In fact companies across Asia are waking up to it. In an NYT piece For Westerners in Asia, the Job Market Grows Tougher, the writer talks about a tightening job market for ex pats; strangely, employers in Hong Kong wanted people who could speak Chinese.
I want more than anything to get back out there - preferably Jakarta so I can get up to my old tricks. But I know I've gotta pick up my game. I can't just turn up like I did a decade ago, hang out a shingle and say
"unemployed white guy - hire me"
DC Guy's message: the Western media is failing you. Ignore them. Read the Jakarta Post, the Jakarta Globe, get an RSS feed to blogs you're interested in.