Sunday, July 16, 2006

Interview with Michael Backman

Michael Backman has seen and heard so much of the inner wheeling and dealing of Asia that it is perhaps not a far stretch to suggest he’s seen it all. Backman is author of numerous books and writes a regular column for The Age. A former employee of the Australian Government, he has shed light on the inner workings of Asia – from corruption to trade politics – in a way few others have. This is the transcript of an interview I conducted in 2005:

Why specialise on Asia? Would you advise young people that Asia is a good subject to study given the growing importance of Asia in trade and diplomacy?

I decided to specialise on Asia because it Asia is close to Australia. It's our own backyard. It simply seemed logical. And yes, of course young Australians should study Asia-related topics.

Is it difficult to forge a career around writing, consulting and speaking?

I don't find it difficult but I know that many do. I spend more time writing books - so far I've written five - than newspaper columns. The consulting and speaking flow from that. But writing does mean long days working on my own. So you do need to be self-motivated, good at organising your time and especially good at controlling interruptions. The average book takes me about eight months of solid work. I keep the same hours as everyone else – I'm at my desk by nine in the morning and I stop around 6 in the evening and I do that every day except weekends. There's no rubbish about sitting under trees in nice locations to get inspiration to write. I'm not a poet. It's all about long hard days in an office location, being very focussed and concentrating hard.

Other than involvement in politics, is journalism one of the fields to be in, in order to make a difference?

Perhaps it is although I don't regard myself as a journalist. As a columnist I write about my opinions, whereas a journalist should write about the opinions of others. Journalists are important for bringing transparency to the world. After all, it’s information that is the key input now to any economy. But journalists should report the news; not make it or be a part of it. That's something I wouldn't like for myself. I prefer to have strong opinions and to make them public.

What do editors look for when commissioning a writer to produce a regular column in an influential daily?

You must be punctual, write clearly and not be wordy. Lots of short sentences are essential. And you must write in an engaging manner and not be afraid to be controversial but not irresponsibly so.

How difficult is it to build up sources for your stories?

I've been writing about Asia for a long time. Very rarely do I call anyone simply to get information from them. I tend to have the connections first and then let the stories and information flow. Actually, this is very Asian. I feel it's the only way to write properly about Asia. If you call up people in Asian business with whom you have no prior connection or relationship they almost certainly won't talk to you and even if they do rarely will they tell you anything useful. They will not be eager to talk about any topic. This contrasts greatly with business people in Australia who are normally very eager to talk to journalists and columnists.

What about the solid knowledge base you need as a columnist writing on topical issues? Is this best built up through an initial foray into academia or the government departments?

I get information from everywhere. I am very curious and spend a lot of time pursuing leads for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. For example, very rarely can I eat in a restaurant without wanting to know who owns it and what other involvements they have. I'm always on the job. I have worked in Australian politics, academia and in Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It has all provided useful background. I've also lived in various cities in Australia including Melbourne, but also in Paris, Jakarta and London. And I travel constantly and widely. Travel is essential for what I do. I learn so much simply by being in a place and looking around and talking with local people. Today as I respond to these questions, I'm in London and more bombs have been exploding. Most people might regard that as dangerous. To me it's an opportunity.

How effective have you been through your articles in holding Asia's governments accountable and what kind of feedback do you get?

My books and columns do sometimes pose a problem for governments in Asia. I am prepared to write about anything and I simply do not care who is offended in Asia. If politicians or business people in Asia are embarrassed by their deeds being written about in public then they should stop doing them. The answer is not to control the media. I recently wrote a column for a Singapore newspaper in which I said that the Singapore Government should relax its ridiculous media laws. The Communications minister gave a speech and accused me of intervening in Singapore’s domestic politics which simply was not the case. His remarks criticising me were reported around the world and were even the subject of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. It made Singapore look even more ridiculous. Public embarrassment is a good way to bring change.


At July 20, 2006 8:09 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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