‛Journalism’ as she is abused at the Cambodia Daily

Two-and-a-half years ago, I received an email from Colin Meyn, who is now the Editor-in-Chief of the Cambodia Daily, revealing an intention to conduct what is known in journalism as a “fishing expedition”. In essence, that means: If you want to discredit someone, go ask them, or someone who claims to know them, a lot of questions and see if that turns up some quotations that can be used for the purpose.

At the time, it seems that not enough useful quotes could be found, and the intended article didn’t appear.

Still, I wasn’t completely surprised when, a few week ago, I received an email from Ben Paviour, one of the Daily’s 23 (yes, really) editors. And yes, Paviour was working on the same sort of assumptions that had motivated his predecessor.

Rather than try to summarise those assumptions, I reproduce here the relevant correspondence between myself and Meyn and Paviour, assuming that readers can see for themselves the axe that the Daily was grinding. Where explanations are needed, or where I couldn’t resist adding a comment, these are included in curly brackets: { }

I have copied this material from email messages, and reordered it chronologically. It is possible that in this process I have introduced minor formatting errors, such as combining two paragraphs into one or vice versa.

Wed, 2014-01-29 at 16:06

Dear Allen,

I hope this email finds you well. I am working on a piece for the Daily about your work with Cambodia’s government, following remarks from Deputy Prime Minister Sok An that seemed to mirror your own writings about the Electoral Reform Alliance {If a Cambodian minister and I agree about something, it must be because he has paid me to say it, or because he isn’t bright enough to see the point by himself}. If you have a chance to respond to a few questions by tomorrow morning, it would be much appreciated.

– What is your relationship with the government?

– Why do you spend your time writing opinion pieces defending the government?

– Why do you believe that U.S.-funded organizations, such as NDI and IRI, are actively working against the CPP?

– Do you feel that your own role with the CPP government {He assumes that I have a “role” or “relationship” with the government, even though he has just asked what it is} is appropriate, given that you too are a foreigner?

If you would prefer to speak over the phone, please let me know when you are available to speak. Best regards,

Colin

Thu, 30 Jan 2014 10:02:20 +0700

Dear Colin,
I hope this is not too late for you. I didn’t see your email until this morning.
My only relationship with the Cambodian government is assisting the Press and Quick Reaction Unit by correcting the English in some of its releases. This is voluntary, unpaid and infrequent activity.
I have been resident in Cambodia since 2000, and have written letters to newspapers on various topics since that time. A few years ago, I decided to publish my comments in a blog, which anyone can read at https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com Anyone is free to use those comments, as the introduction to the blog states: “Any article on this blog may be freely reproduced without charge, provided that attribution is included to the author and the blog address.”
Your other questions are based on inaccurate assumptions.
Regards,
Allen

On Thu, 2014-01-30 at 10:52 +0700, Colin Meyn wrote:

Hi Allen,

Thanks for the response. If you have a chance to respond in the next few hours, a couple of additional questions.

What has been your main occupation in Cambodia since 2000?

Why do you spend your time writing opinion pieces defending the government?

Best,

Colin

30 Jan 2014 11:53:15

Hi Colin,

My main occupation has been freelance editing (mostly for NGOs).

Allen

{That was the last I heard on this topic from Colin Meyn, but suddenly, a few weeks ago, someone (the Editor-in-Chief?) at the Daily remembered that the most burning issue in Cambodia has been ignored for the last 30 months:}

Thu, 14 Jul 2016 15:38:10

Hi Allen,

I’m a reporter with the Cambodia Daily writing a story about Westerners with sympathetic views of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the current government.

A few questions:

  • What initially brought you to Cambodia?
  • I understand you’ve done some work for the government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit now and then. What is your current relationship with government?
  • You’ve defended Hun Sen and the government from critical voices on your blog, but do you actively support the prime minister and the government {“actively support”? Even though not a citizen, do I vote for the CPP – along with all those Vietnamese troops?}? If so, why do you think he’s been an effective leader?
  • Why do you think that, after the murder of Kem Ley on Sunday, many Cambodians on Facebook/in the crowds gathered there voiced skepticism that the case will be thoroughly investigated {Isn’t this good? The Daily, which must be on the borderline of bankruptcy, can’t afford to send journalists out into the street to ask people what they think, so I should do it for them}?
  • You’ve held left-leaning political views for some time. {Thank you so much for telling me what I think.} Hun Sen and the CPP have embraced capitalism. Do you think that switch has been good for the country?

Best,

Ben

On Fri, Jul 15, 2016 at 12:31 PM, Allen Myers wrote:

Hi Ben,

Before I consider my answers to your questions, I need to establish the context in which they might appear.

Is the Daily also planning a story about Westerners with critical views of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the current government? If so, will the two stories (sympathetic/critical) appear at the same time (i.e. in the same issue or in comparable consecutive issues)?

Is the Daily also planning a story about Westerners who are critical of some government actions/policies and sympathetic to others? If so, will that article appear at the same time as the other two? How will it be decided in which article to include someone who supports some aspects of the government and criticises others?

Regards,

Allen

Fri, 15 Jul 2016 14:30:20

Hi Allen,

I’m writing this piece in isolation. As you’ve mentioned before, we cover Westerners and Western-funded organizations who speak out against the government very regularly. Westerners who hold even mildly sympathetic views of government aren’t often quoted and are likely to be more of a novelty to our readers. I’m genuinely interested in their rationale, since I haven’t met any Westerners who come from that school of thought.

And no, it’s not necessarily people who believe everything the government does is great. I spoke to [name withheld by me, out of a regard for privacy that Ben Paviour seems not to share], for example, who admires some of Hun Sen’s work but is critical on issues relating to ethnic minorities and other areas.

Best,

Ben

On Fri, Jul 15, 2016 at 10:17 PM, Allen Myers wrote:

Hi Ben,
I agree that the Daily is more likely to quote critics than supporters of government actions. But the only way to overcome that imbalance is to change that practice. Running a story about people who you classify as sympathetic to the government and changing nothing else in the Daily’s reporting would only conceal the imbalance.

My views on events in Cambodia are expressed on my blog and in letters I send to the Daily or other newspapers. Thank you for the opportunity to be quoted in your article, but I prefer to let my writing speak for me rather than appearing in an article about a “school of thought” with whose other members I would probably have many differences.

Regards,

Allen

Mon, 18 Jul 2016 10:38:18

Hi Allen,

Your writing makes your position on bodies that you see as critical of the government very clear. The item that gets very scant attention in your pieces is your position on the government itself. If you have pieces that speak to your position on the practices and policies of government (rather than reaction to the reaction to them), please send them my way.

Otherwise, I still have two lingering questions:

  • In what capacity do you work for government, if at all? {I have not counted the number of times Daily “reporters” have asked me this question in this exchange. The real meaning of the question seems to be: “How can you disagree with me if you aren’t being paid to do so?”}
  • What has the current regime achieved, and where has it fallen short?

Best,

Ben

On Tue, Jul 19, 2016 at 9:47 AM, Allen Myers wrote:

Hi Ben,

I have a lot of opinions about a lot of things that I have never posted on my blog or written magazine or newspaper articles about. I believe this is a fairly normal situation for most human beings, so I do not understand why you find it strange that I have not written much on a topic that you are interested in.

As for the two specific questions that conclude your message:

1. I do not “work for” the government in any normal sense of the phrase. I have helped people in the Press and Quick Reaction Unit from time to time by correcting the English of various releases. This is voluntary, unpaid, assistance, which I have also done occasionally for other individuals.

2. A history of Cambodia since 1979 would undoubtedly be of interest, but I do not have the knowledge or time to produce it.

This is my third response to you. I hope you will have gathered by now that I do not wish to try to present my views to the public through the article you are planning to write. My initial disinclination was of course multiplied when I learned that you were approaching members of my family on the assumption that they must have the same opinions I have.

Allen

{In the last paragraph of the previous message, “members of my family” refers to the following message that Paviour sent to someone related to me on 15 July:

Hi [name withheld],

I’m a reporter with The Cambodia Daily writing a story about expats who have a sympathetic view of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government.

A few questions for you:

Do you think that the prime minister is a good leader? An effective one? And if so, what makes you feel that way?

why do you think foreign press often take a critical view of the prime minister and the government?

Has your opinion on these issues changed at all over the years? Why?

Best,

Ben

This relative denies ever having publicly expressed a position either sympathetic to or critical of the government. Paviour must know better than the person concerned: perhaps Paviour is channelling the late Senator Joe McCarthy.}

Mon, 8 Aug 2016 14:11:14

Hi Allen,

The piece has shifted focus to profile you and Helen Jarvis, particularly exploring your ideological positions as well as relationship to government. In the admittedly unlikely chance you are willing, I have a few more questions:

  • How did you all meet?
  • Do you identify as a Trotskyist?
  • What is your motivation for writing so many letters to the editor?

Best,

Ben


On Tue, Aug 9, 2016 at 9:28 PM, wrote:

Ben,
Responses to your questions:

Question 1: This is incomprehensible. Who or what does “you all” refer to?

Question 2: No.

Question 3: Your wording – “so many letters” – clearly implies that there is something odd or improper about writing more than some unspecified number of letters to the editor. That attitude seems at odds with the Daily’s frequently published appeal to readers to “email your letter”. Aside from that generalised appeal, I have several times received personal requests from your Editor-in-Chief to send letters to the Daily. If he now feels that I send too many, he can inform me, and of course I will stop sending them.

In regard to your “shifted focus”, this is far from the first shift since Colin Meyn first mounted this hobby horse two and a half years ago. That you have now shifted from pestering my [relative] to pestering my wife doesn’t say much for your, or the Daily’s, journalistic standards. My letters and comments on my blog are my own, not the product of a committee.

Your procedure reminds me of a criticism of an American poet that I read many years ago: that he didn’t understand the difference between having to write a poem and having a poem to write.

Allen

Thu, 11 Aug 2016 11:58:25

Hi Allen,

Sorry to hear you feel that way about the piece. It’s customary practice in journalism to email sources with questions. I do hope you’ll continue sending letters, as I enjoy reading them and they enliven debate.

We’re running the story tomorrow. Do you have any photos of you and Ms. Jarvis that you can share?

Best,

Ben

Thu, 11 Aug 2016, 10:20

Ben,

Thank you for your information about journalistic practice, even though I didn’t really feel the need for it, since I have been working as a journalist for several decades longer than you have been alive.

I am glad that you enjoy my letters. Unfortunately, this seems to apply only to the letters that are printed in the Daily: you appear not to have read my last emailed letter to you with any attention, which a journalist who is questioning “sources” really ought to do. For instance, you have not attempted to clarify my query regarding the meaning of your incomprehensible question about “you all”.

Also, if you re-read my message (or read it for the first time?), you will see that I did not object to you asking questions of relevant people, but to your shifty focusing of your “story” and the people you bother with it.

Allen

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