TCS Daily

FEER and the Unknown

By Rowan Callick - January 21, 2005 12:00 AM

The Asian culture wars claimed, late in 2004, their most grievously lamented victim: the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER).

The weekly news magazine's owner, American business media corporation Dow Jones, shut it suddenly, sacking 80 staff, 10 per cent of Dow's Asia-based workforce, saying that advertising sales had shrunk. Its title has been retained for an entirely different product, a monthly collection of essays.

This is an event that will cause many English-speaking people who live and work in Asia to pause and take stock.


It is not an isolated loss. It is part of a pattern of decline of regional English-language media, which indicates that the presumed path of globalisation is not conforming to previous expectations in the 21st century.

As the international economic centre of gravity keeps shifting to Asia, it has been widely presumed by Westerners that because their management skills are being drawn into this process, and because globalisation has been confused with Americanisation, then somehow Western culture will also keep marching ahead inside Asia.

But evidence is emerging that something different, something unanticipated, is happening. You can see signs in Hong Kong, where FEER was edited throughout its 58 years. The middle-aged generation of Hong Kongers for the most part speak better English than today's generation in their teens and 20s.

Because the Asian elite, with characteristic Asian application, learn to speak English impressively in order to do business with foreigners, this does not mean that they choose English for information or recreation.

Rupert Murdoch, as so often, has an instinct about such matters. His Phoenix Satellite TV, a Mandarin-language joint venture with former People's Liberation Army propagandist Liu Chang Le, has been considerably more commercially successful than his English-language Star TV.

And because the Asian English-language business TV market did not provide the expected bonanza, half a dozen years ago Dow Jones was forced to merge its business news channel with NBC's, to form CNBC.

The South China Morning Post, recently the most profitable paper in the world, owned by the Malaysian-Chinese Kuok family, has, since the handover of Hong Kong to China in mid-1997, steadily "localised" itself by replacing its cosmopolitan writers with Chinese by-lines.

Economic success through East Asia is naturally underwriting mini-revivals of regional cultures. Hollywood has yet to conquer Asia, where the two biggest markets, China and India, are especially resistant and by no means only because of protectionist barriers.


The media scene in Asia is unpredictable and fluid, and there is no uniform or permanent trend towards greater openness. The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, in its latest annual press freedom ratings a couple of days ago, listed North Korea as worst in the world, with Burma, China, Vietnam and Laos following closely.

It is less than three years since FEER's long-term rival, Asiaweek, originally set up by former FEER hands, was also closed by its American corporate owner, Time.

And it is less than six months since Spike, a feisty English-language satirical magazine in Hong Kong, folded. Publisher Stephen Vines, author of a series of ground-breaking books on business in Asia and a successful businessman there, had earlier edited a daily newspaper, Eastern Express, which expired shortly before Hong Kong's handover.

He views FEER's golden era, in the 1960s and 1970s, as due to "a few strong-minded individuals, whose character penetrated the magazine. It was like nothing else, and people were excited by it."

Philip Bowring, one of Asia's most influential business commentators, was only the fourth editor of FEER in 46 years when he stepped down in 1992 as Dow Jones stepped up control. Since then, there have been six editors.

Its recent problems, says Bowring, included attempting to appeal to advertisers rather than to readers. The magazine worked best, he says, when it reached small but influential groups of readers through uniquely well-researched and tough-minded, often controversial, articles on issues throughout the region.

Bowring is helping organise, in April, a momentous farewell to the magazine he once edited. Vines is unlikely to be there. "I've been to enough wakes," he says.


Rowan Callick is Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian Financial Review.


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