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Jonathan Fenby tells Matt Fleming about his life in newspapers – and now in books
When you meet a British newspaper editor you often become paralysed by fear. These are the real bulldogs of the world – the men and women who have worked their way to the top in the most cut-throat industry imaginable, and they often dig their heels in to stay there. But that headline doesn’t ring true with Jonathan Fenby. Despite being former editor of The Observer and South China Morning Post, there’s little of that overbearing fear factor. In fact, he’s more about English charm than British bulldoggery.
Despite his media background, Fenby has become known first and foremost as an author. The 69-year-old has written 12 tomes since 1998, with six of his books on China – mainly history, including the Penguin History of Modern China (chosen by the Financial Times and The Economist as a book of the year). His current offering, however, is on contemporary China: Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, which has just been published. He says the book ‘gives an overall picture of contemporary China – politics, economics, society, history, international relations, demography, environment and plenty of personal observations’. He says: “While there are many excellent books on specific aspects of China, there is no single book which pulls everything together in this way.”
Fenby graduated from Oxford University and spent nearly 40 years as a journalist. At Reuters he was a foreign correspondent before becoming editor of the World Service. He worked for The Economist and then made news editor at The Independent when it launched in 1986 before becoming deputy editor of The Guardian and editor of The Observer. He ended newspaper life as editor of the South China Morning Post between 1995 and 1999 – spanning the handover here. He worked on online services after returning to the UK in 2000, wrote books and freelanced, then became a founding partner of Trusted Sources, a research service on emerging economies.
But it’s literature where he has arguably made his biggest name. “I had written three books after leaving Reuters at the end of the 1970s but then stopped,” he says. “In Hong Kong something clicked and I was able both to edit the SCMP and work on my first book in my spare time. It was somewhat strange to do a 450-page account of France while being responsible for the SCMP seven days a week at a time when the paper was growing in size and circulation over the handover in 1997. It must have been something in the Hong Kong water or maybe the fact that I didn’t play golf and only rarely went to the races. More seriously there was an urgency in Hong Kong which spurred me on and I was far happier editing the SCMP than I had been at my last job in London so that contributed too. Also Hong Kong was important in bringing me into contact with China – which has been my main subject ever since.”
Fenby’s seen it all in journalism – but he notes that these are ‘very difficult times for the print media’. “The move to online consumption of news and opinion is undeniable,” he says. “Newspapers have acquired a cost base which the shift to electronic publishing brings into question – but few of them have worked out how to maximise revenues sufficiently from their online activities. So they’re caught in a rolling crisis which will get worse as more people desert print for electronic access which is, by its nature, faster and more convenient. I was fortunate to have worked in newspapers in an easier age – though it was never that easy.”
Fenby has a couple of TV drama projects coming up and is working on a book about a Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and he’s here on June 4 under the Hong Kong International Literary Festival banner for a couple of talks. “I visit Hong Kong several times a year and I always enjoy it,” he says. “I was asked to give two talks on June 4 as part of the books festival. One is focused on economic issues, the other more generally about today’s China. I hope that what I have to say, and what is in the book, will be of interest to people in Hong Kong. After all, they live on the Mainland’s doorstep.” We sure do, and we’re all ears…
Tiger Head, Snake Tails is published by Simon & Schuster, priced $250. Fenby’s June 4 talks are at Club Lusitano in Central, from 8am-10am, and the Duke of Windsor Social Services Building in Wan Chai, from 7pm. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details and entry prices.