Luke Hunt came to journalism in the early 1980s after traveling through what was then some of the world’s trouble-spots, including Northern Ireland and the south of Morocco.
Hunt initially worked for Australian Associated Press and then Agence France-Presse where he served as bureau chief in Afghanistan and Cambodia and later as Deputy Economics Editor for Asia.
Having covered conflicts in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, he is currently focused on counter-terrorism and conflicts in Southeast Asia.
He has written for The Diplomat, The Economist, The Washington Times, Voice of America and occasionally The New York Times. He also serves as Opinion Editor for UCAN and is a regular on radio in Australia and Hong Kong.
Hunt was personally commended for his coverage of the Afghan civil war by the UN Special Envoy for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi and his work has been honoured by the World Association of Newspapers and the Society of Publishers in Asia.
He obtained a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters of Defence from Deakin University in his native Australia and is an Academic Program Professor at Pannasastra University in Cambodia where he wrote the course “War, Media and International Relations”.
Mark Roy caught up with Luke Hunt in Bangkok, Thailand, via Skype from Darwin, Australia.
MR: Since working in Cambodia in the 1990s, you’ve covered conflicts in Sri Lanka and Kashmir and reported from Afghanistan and Iraq. But you always come back to Phnom Penh. What is it about the Kingdom that draws you in?
LH: One of the great things about Cambodia has been to watch it rapidly normalise over the last 17 years, since after the war has ended in late ’98. I went back to Afghanistan in 2013, and it was better than what it was in the 90s under the Taliban, but it hadn’t improved that much. In Cambodia, it has moved along nicely, for a long time, despite all the problems.
At the same time, when I went freelance 10 years ago – you really do get a lesson in how the market drives you. A lot of people, a lot of editors, were: “We really like you in Cambodia. We like what you do there. When are you going back?” When you are working for yourself there is a need to make money, and you tend to follow that.
The other factor, which is huge, is I had a terrific social life over there. I’ve got very good friends and some terrific contacts and it’s a lot of fun, which you don’t get in the Islamic countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.
MR: So at the moment you’re using Cambodia as a base to write or report on the region?
LH: Yeah. I mean it’s been good for that, but things are changing. Cambodia has really made its mark, in that it’s been a terrific place for journalists to base themselves to cover the region. Thailand has had issues with the coup, Malaysia has completely gone the wrong way, the Philippines and Indonesia are interesting – but basing yourself there, they are both big island archipelagos and you can only really cover that country. It’s too far from anywhere.
But with Cambodia, you know – proximity, cost, ease of business, ease of getting a visa, that kind of thing and press freedom has been an enormous advantage to that country over the last 20 years.
MR: How to you see your role in reporting on local politics? As a foreign correspondent, do you see it as your duty to report to publications outside the country, or to report domestically?
LH: No, I’m a foreign correspondent. I’m not trying to preach to the Khmers or talk to them. I don’t speak Khmer – i’s not my audience; it never has been. But I did say at the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival a year ago that a lot of this is changing. And with digital technology, smartphones, Cambodians – it’s extraordinary how far ahead of the curve they are compared to other countries when it comes to learning English. You’ve got instant translations, that kind of thing. Now the authorities there – as in most countries – never really cared what we wrote in English for home audiences. And that’s changing, because more and more what foreign correspondents write is seeping out into their electorates, and people are increasingly seeing what we write.
MR: So people are increasingly accessing news services that aren’t for a domestic market?
LH: That’s right. And that’s happening everywhere. That happens in Australia as well. In Australia, schools no longer subscribe to the major newspapers like The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald. They go straight online and buy a bundle of international publications. And that’s actually had an enormous impact on the credibility, the brand name, prestige, that kind of thing, that goes with mastheads in these cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Perth. And not just there, in America and Canada, and those sorts of places as well.
In terms of the media game, I do think that mass media is dead. Those days are over.
What we are seeing now is the rise of niche publications. People are more likely to go directly to a niche publication to find out what they want in regards to a certain subject than to rely on the mainstream media. And this is where the Rupert Murdochs of the world are struggling, because it’s not what it was. They can’t get the critical numbers like they used to … it’s all been broken up in niche markets. And the irony, of course, is that they were the ones who broke it all up into niche markets in the first place, with what they did with magazines in the 1980s and 90s.
MR: Currently you’re a professor at The Paññasastra University of Cambodia. What advice would you give to an aspiring journalist or writer?
LH: No story is worth dying for. No story is worth getting hurt for. That’s the main one. Turn up on time. Be polite. Know about your subject. “Read in”, which is an old journalistic term, but know your subject. Try not to be too much of a smart arse, which goes with a lot of the millennials these days. Everybody thinks they know what they’re talking about, and they don’t.
The other point is … read books. All the numbers point to millennials not reading books. And I know for a fact there is a lot of journalists, younger journalists, out there who are never shy of expressing a stupid opinion on Facebook. They sound stupid because you can tell they have never read a book about the subject that they are pontificating about.
When it comes to the Khmers – PUC is an English-language university – those are the points that I like to emphasise: objectivity, be fair, do no harm.
MR: As a writer, what are you currently working on? Any major projects?
LH: I’m working on two books, the major project really is The Punji Trap which is a book about the Vietnam War. I would have liked to have had that book out for the festival. I could try to get a special edition out but it was going to be too much of a rush job. This will be my second book, and – as you learn with the first – you don’t want to rush a book. It’s too easy to make mistakes. That should be out in December, and perhaps we can do something again for the Festival next year on that.
The other book is more of a textbook for university students called ASEAN: Guns and Journalism at the Dawn of the Digital Age.
MR: You said you don’t want to rush a book. How much of an issue it it, in the dawn of the digital age, with having to be first with a story? How does it affect the quality of reporting?
LH: As I always say to the students, it’s speed and accuracy. You can be the fastest journalist on earth, but if you get it wrong, you’ll always be known as wrong.
I think the edge has been taken off who’s first, because if you look at things like, ok, Michael Jackson died, Osama Bin Laden died, I heard it first on Facebook; people tipping each other off. Which kind of takes the edge off.
I was with Agence France-Presse for many years. When we were in Iraq, I was the first journalist across the Diyala River into Baghdad. And I know through VOA [Voice of America] that I was 10 minutes ahead of AP [Associated Press]. Back in the day, that really mattered. I was the first journalist across the river, I was 10 minutes ahead of AP, and everyone thought “Yeah!” Now, if you were crossing the Diyala River into Baghdad with the soldiers, they would all have their smartphones saying “I’m there now mum”. The whole kind of “what’s important” and how you do things has totally changed. No-one would care less if you were the first journalist across because everybody already knew they were there. We don’t need war correspondents – which is a good thing, in many ways – the way we used to because everyone is up there with a smartphone anyway.
MR: When you do hear about an event like that – the fall of a city, or the death of a famous person – you might hear about it on Facebook. But the first thing I guess most readers do is look for a quality analytical piece, or a quality report on it, to find out what is going on.
LH: That’s quite right, and I actually think, what I’ve found in journalism over the last 10 years is that I don’t really like doing news these days because you are competing with all the wires, the regular newspapers, and people who have got Facebook.
I’ve found the demand is in doing the news analysis and the features. So when everybody else is writing the news story, I’m actually already writing the analysis. I like to try and get that off first. There is a demand for “What does this mean?” as soon as possible.
I think you’ll find that news stories are getting shorter, and the demand for analysis is getting longer. So instead of having a 500-word news story, you might have a three-par brief and then straight into the analysis. There are huge shifts now.
MR: Is there a line between analysis and opinion? And is there a line between journalism and activism?
LH: In terms of activism – activism is propaganda. There is nothing new in fake news. It’s been around forever, and it will always be around … we’re just going through another era of propaganda. Activism is all about propaganda, it’s all about the cause and using the media and propaganda to support that cause. So that’s not journalism.
Journalism requires objectivity. I’ve heard people say on and off over the years that you can’t be truly objective. That’s just nonsense – that’s like saying to a doctor that you can’t truly diagnose something. It’s a silly line from civilians.
You have to be objective, you have to tell both sides, you need to be fair – all those kinds of principles that we apply in journalism, they’re very normal and they do exist. That doesn’t happen in activism. They are two different things.
You have a lot of journalists who work in NGOs [non-government organisations]. That doesn’t mean it’s journalism: it’s public relations. It’s exactly the same thing: they dress themselves up in a cause, they’re often young, they stand on the moral high ground and have pretensions to say I’m really great at what I do, and I really matter. Which is OK, that’s fine – but that’s still propaganda. It’s not journalism.
I think the distinctions are grey. But there are efforts to try and blur the lines because if you’re working for an NGO pushing your cause, the more you can appear to be fair, objective and balanced, the more likely people are to take you seriously.
MR: Although journalism requires objectivity, that doesn’t preclude voicing an opinion. What makes a good opinion piece?
LH: Well, Patrick Smith of The New York Times once told me that to write a column you need three things: two facts, and an opinion. And I think that’s pretty much it. You’ve got both sides in there and your opinion.
The line between where it becomes propaganda and other people step into the fray – I mean, in the digital age, everyone is a celebrity. Everyone’s got an opinion and the means of getting it out there, to a point. At least so their friends can see it and they can pretend they are publishing. And that’s OK – but there is a lot of noise out there.
MR: Let’s go to the theme of the festival, and the question there is: In what way should a journalist have courage?
LH: Like I tell my students, no story is worth dying for … I don’t even think going to jail for. It depends on the countries you’re in. But I think people need to have the courage to tell the truth.
Whether that truth contrasts with political opinion – political correctness, the story the corporates would prefer you to tell, what the religious leaders would prefer you to tell, these sorts of things – you need to stand up and basically have the backbone and to say no, this is the way it is, and this is what the facts say, and this is what happened.
If a journalist can start there, that’s almost enough. For a lot of people, that requires a good deal of courage, just to get that cab off the rank.
Courage can be measured in different ways. If you’ve got an editor who is pressuring you to come up with a certain type of story, and they’d rather see it slanted this way or that way, you’ve got to stand up to your editor and say “I’m sorry, the story is not like that. This is what we have, like it or lump it”.
It’s in all sorts of shapes and forms in the industry, it’s not just sort of standing up to a government and waving the flag of righteousness and saying “You’re wrong and I’m right and I’m prepared to go to jail for it”. There are a lot of journalists – particularly foreign correspondents and expat journalists – who like to take that course. And I think some of them should calm down.
MR: So it’s not simply being a voice of opposition to government?
LH: Absolutely not. That’s propaganda. That’s activism.
MR: Which current or past writers and journalists inspire you, or have inspired you?
LH: When I was a kid I loved Tom Wolfe and his style of New Journalism. I read The Right Stuff and I thought that was one of the greatest books of the twentieth century. If you look at his sense of journalism, and how he wrote that book, it was terrific.
Lindsay Murdoch is an old friend of mine – and a bit older, I have to add. He’s a contemporary who I think has done a tremendous job. And then there are people like Jim Pringle, who is well known to many Cambodians. He covered the Tet Offensive for Reuters, he worked for Newsweek in Lebanon, he had an extraordinary career that spanned, oh – five, six decades. That’s three that immediately come to mind.
Kate Webb, who’s just been put on an Australian stamp – I actually worked with Kate for a few years and she was, ah … [laughs] quite a character. But she had an enormous career in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and in Cambodia, where she was captured by the Khmer Rouge and declared dead … and then they found her well and truly alive.
I’ve got no shortage of journalists who I admire, but some of them are my friends so I can’t say.
MR: For an aspiring writer or author, do you think news reporting – doing that lean format of news style – will beat the creativity out of you? Or is it a good discipline for writing?
LH: Definitely a discipline. I mean, at the end of the day, writers write. I’ve known all sorts of people who will see themselves as a writer, and I ask “Well, what have you written?” Some say “Yeah, well, I haven’t published anything” and I say it’s not what I asked. What have you written? Do you write a diary? What do you write? Writers write. Do you write letters? What is it that you do?
Where journalism is terrific is that it does instil discipline. You need to have discipline. And you also need to have a sense of who you are writing for if you want to be published. I mean, just writing for yourself – you’re still a writer, and that’s great, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s far better to be doing that than being a pretentious git who is running around telling everyone “Ooh, I’m a writer”.
MR: News photographers often give voice to the practical philosophy“f8 and be there”. Is there a similarly blunt maxim for news writers?
LH: The f8 analogy goes back to keeping it reasonably in focus. Photographers also like to say “get up early and capture the morning light”. And I think they are saying that requires discipline and you need to be up at 4 or 5am and be out where you want to be as the sun comes up. And I think there is something in that for writers as well. You need to be where you need to be to capture what it is you want to write about.
You need to sit down and write it. You know, if you’re going to write 300, 3000, 30,000 or 300,000 words, it doesn’t write itself. It can be a very lonely business, because you have to stick with it. And a sense of tempo really helps, and a sense of timing. I think that’s where journalism also helps. A lot.
Writers write. It doesn’t matter where they are. I’ve got some terrific friends in journalism. We used to sort of drink too much and hang out at Club 64 in Hong Kong before the handover in ’97 and we’d write poetry on napkins covered in red wine and people used to write on the walls and do all sorts of things, and – there shouldn’t be any rules about doing that kind of thing. It just comes back – I’m probably saying it too many times now – but I do think writers write.
I had a friend of mine who edited a magazine in Malaysia, and he was an American and had a very American work ethic … and he had to sack a girl who claimed to be a journalist. She was coming in late and going home on time and after two months she hadn’t written anything. You at least write something. Why? Because writers write. Journalists write. If you’re not going to write, then get out of the way.
MR: In what ways do you see Cambodia’s literary landscape benefitting from the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival? I might preface that by noting the writer Elizabeth Pisani, a speaker at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, made the point that it was more of an Australian writers festival than an Indonesian writers festival.
LH: It’s an international writers festival. If it’s organised predominantly by Australians then so be it, but there are international writers festivals the same as there are international photo festivals.
I know there have been calls to try and get Cambodians more involved with the Kampot festival and I’ve been in trouble for saying that I’m really not that fussed. It’s in the English language. We can’t do Khmer, they can do it themselves. I mean, I’m on the board of the Press Club and people often ask me “We should get more Khmers involved” but I’m like “Why?” There is about eight Cambodian press clubs for Cambodian journalists. They are more than capable of looking after themselves, and more than capable of doing their own thing.
It’s providing the stage and the platform to link them up with international publishers, distributors, ideas, other authors, other writers – bringing it together. I think it should be an international stage, not a local stage, and in that sense I agree with it.
The interesting thing about Cambodia is how they’ve taken to the English language. If you compare Cambodia with Thailand or even China and Vietnam, and how many people speak English compared to what’s happening in Cambodia.
Where the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival is terrific is that it should be an international stage, and it provides a venue for Cambodian writers, as well as all the other writers. But being in Cambodia it provides the English-language writers with a venue in which they can go forth, write their books, sell them, market them, and become authors of note.
MR: That’s great Luke, thanks.
– INTERVIEW FOR KRWF GAZETTE BY MARK ROY