Tales from the East: An Australian foreign correspondent’s brilliant career

David’s experiences with individuals across Asia are riddled with surprising coincidences.

Alice Dawkins

Society and culture | Asia, Australia

17 March 2014

Alice Dawkins tells the story of the brilliant career of esteemed Australian journalist David Jenkins.


Few have experienced the course of history in the Asia-Pacific like David Jenkins. First posted to Jakarta for the Melbourne Herald in 1969-70, then to Vientiane in 1973-75 and back to Jakarta in 1976-80, David’s career as a foreign correspondent at times reads like a passage out of a Graham Greene novel.

It was an era of typewriters and communication via cables. Armed only with his Olivetti portable typewriter, David travelled throughout Burma, Laos, and India for the Herald in the late sixties, mailing off stories back to Australia as he wrote them. With cables, word limits were tighter and the need for a pithy writing style was paramount. When he worked for the American Associated Press in Laos, David describes the regular trips to the telex office, where the typists were almost always dozing off in the stuffy room and so he would have to file stories himself, on old typewriters with French keyboards and, for the most part, with the tops of the letters missing.

For a region so vast, David’s experiences with individuals across Asia are riddled with surprising coincidences.

As a young journalist in Saigon in 1969, David was staying at a hotel down near the Saigon River, and was woken up with a start by the sound of rockets. They were the Viet Cong’s, propelling through the night sky with a bright orange glow as they soared through the dark and towards the Central Markets, where they struck the building, causing injuries. Twenty years later David met the very woman who had been involved in the rocket launch – she had been a prominent member of the National Liberation Front. Her husband had been killed by the South Vietnamese, yet she was becoming bitter about how the North was imposing its will and squeezing out the Southerners. Looking back on the night when they fired rockets across the black Saigon night – she laughed as she recalled that, while they were aiming for the presidential palace, one rocket had struck her father’s house, which was across the street from their target.

The coincidence of neighbourhood emerged again in the early 1970s in Indonesia. Darsono, the founder of the Indonesian Communist Party who David shared many conversations with over the years, was of a fairly aristocratic background and lived 150 metres [around the corner] from Suharto, the then leader of Indonesia. David describes an old man with modern ideas; in his later life he became particularly concerned by environmental issues facing Indonesia, like deforestation in Java. Four years after Suharto had ordered a “bloodbath” which claimed the lives of perhaps half a million  Communist Party members across the nation, the Party’s very founder, who had since rejected Communism, was one of his closest neighbours.

The most chilling coincidence of all occurred in the late nineties, when the political situation in East Timor was heating up to a climax. Sensing the tense atmosphere, a number of foreign journalists were concerned for each other’s safety and the onset of “another Balibo”. To avoid the journalists becoming trapped in a rapidly escalating situation in Dili, the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald hired a motor launch and asked David to seek permission from the Indonesian government to bring it into Dili Harbour. He found himself in an office with General Junus Josfiah, the Minister for Information, who agreed to the arrangement. In the seventies, the very same man had been a  special forces officer. In an interview with David and Lindsay Murdoch of The Age just before he approved the boat request, Junus admitted for the first time that he had led the 1975 attack on Balibo in which five Australia-based journalists were killed.

The camaraderie between the journalists on their postings is particularly heart-warming. Many a time they would combine resources to travel the region for stories; in Cambodia, 1970, David along with reporters from the Melbourne Age and the London Daily Telegraph (neither of whom could drive) squeezed into a little car and travelled along tank-filled roads in search of angles on the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk. Each day journalists would go down to the Cambodia-Vietnamese border, a known Viet Cong area. It was common knowledge that the Viet Cong came through every afternoon at 4pm. When the journalists’ car broke down in the area in the late afternoon, the mood swiftly became tense, unaided by the emergence of Khmer men carrying machetes from the depths of the jungle. One journalist suggested, “If they attack us, just swing your Nikons at them!” Thankfully such a futile battle never ensued.

Many of the little vignettes which David recalled to me spoke of a soft, mellow language of days gone by. The work then was certainly not without its energy and urgency. It was said that if you were one minute ahead of the news agencies in New York, you had a world scoop in your hands. Yet there was also the opportunity to write feature articles of thousands of words over the course of as much as a week.  ‘Research’ was conducted in dialogue with people, a world away from the sedentary, solitary styles of online researching today. The seventies is described as the industry’s  ‘Golden Age’, and it is difficult not to become overwhelmed with nostalgia – a period when investment in journalism was so generous that employers would have two correspondents posted to major cities in South East Asia. It is a stark contrast to the financial constraints of the industry today, where cost-cutting across the board results in fewer and fewer journalists given the opportunity to report on the ground. David’s colourful life in journalism is a reminder for us all of the value of person-to-person relationships in media, and its irreplaceable role in understanding a region through the eyes and words of its peoples.




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