Alan Parkhouse is one of the most respected senior journalists in the region. Fellow writer Scott Murray recently caught up with ‘Parkie’ to talk about his many experiences in a long and eventful career.
Alan was born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1954. He grew up in Grafton, a town of about 30,000, in northern New South Wales. He left Grafton High School at 15 to start an apprenticeship as a hand and machine compositor, or hot metal printer, at the Daily Examiner, Grafton’s local newspaper since 1859. Later, he went on to the Sydney Graphic Arts College as part of his apprenticeship.
Otherwise, he studied at the school of hard knocks. Alan switched to journalism in the 1980s and became the editor of two suburban papers in Sydney before moving to the bigger national dailies. He has worked in newspapers in Australia, Thailand, England, Cambodia and Hong Kong. As well as the two suburban newspapers in Sydney, and he has been the editor-in-chief of The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times in Cambodia and the acting editor of the Sunday Bangkok Post roughly 10 times while the editor was on holidays.
A: I left Australia in 1974, when I was 20, on a mission to see the world. I had a ticket from Sydney to London that allowed me to stop anywhere along the way. My first stop was Singapore and I went overland from there all the way to Laos. I liked the region, especially Thailand, so much I decided to stay, plus by that stage, I really didn’t have enough money to keep going.
Q: What was it like working at the Bangkok Post, a paper that many consider the best in Southeast Asia?
A: I worked at the Bangkok Post twice, the first time on the news desk of the daily paper. During my first stint there, the Sunday edition was given a whole new look by Australian Paul Ruffini, who’d been bought in from the SCMP in Hong Kong. I was asked to switch from the daily paper to the Sunday edition, where I took on the role of chief sub-editor.
Paul was a fantastic editor to work with; full of story ideas for the two magazines we did with the Sunday edition, especially Spectrum, which I rated as the best weekly news magazine in Asia. Paul was the complete package – he was a great writer, an excellent sub-editor, a great headline writer and he saw the big picture that few others did. Paul turned the Sunday Bangkok Post into the best paper in Asia and I loved working there.
I eventually left after I was offered the editor’s job of The Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia, which I did for four years. I then returned to Bangkok and the Sunday Bangkok Post where I had the title of senior editor, which I suspect was a subtle joke about my age by Paul. I had another two very enjoyable years working with Paul and his small team before I again left to go to Cambodia, this time to be the editor of a new paper, Khmer Times. The Bangkok Post was a great place to work and I have very fond memories of my time there and am grateful for the friends I made and the talented people I worked with.
Q: Before the Bangkok Post you worked at The Nation. What was that like?
A: I first worked for The Nation here in Thailand in 1990 and was the first dedicated sub-editor the paper had ever hired for its sports section. I still remember how much they paid me when I first started – the grand total of 18,000 baht a month.
I left after a few years and went to Hong Kong and spent almost a year on the Eastern Express, a rival at the time to the South China Morning Post. My second stint at The Nation came in in 2001, when I was offered the job of sports editor. I remained in that job for about six years, and mostly enjoyed it.
I enjoyed being able to go into the field and report on sailing regattas, cricket and rugby tournaments around the country and region. And the small team I had on the sports desk were great people, but I can’t say the same for management.
The Nation was started by a former Bangkok Post reporter who resented the fact that the Post had been started by a foreigner, so he went and started his own paper, proudly owned and run by Thais. But he had to reluctantly hire experienced foreigners to edit the English, and the unwritten rule was that few, if any, foreigners could rise in the ranks.
Some of the senior staff seemed to resent the fact that I was the sports editor, and they took my name out of the credit box listing the senior editorial staff that appeared every day in the paper. Some of the most talented journalists in Asia worked at The Nation over the years, but none were allowed to rise to senior positions and few were ever asked for advice by the senior, but far less experienced, Thai staff.
Perhaps if they had been more like the Bangkok Post and appreciated the talent of some of their imports and sought their advice, they might still be in a viable position today. But at the end of the day I did enjoy my time at The Nation, and I had a lot of fun with my counterpart from the Bangkok Post, Roger Crutchley.
Roger and I formed a team each to play the curtainraiser for the elephant polo tournament for four of five years, and the annual Bangkok Post vs The Nation elephant polo matches were great. For the record, my team only lost once, the only year a trophy was presented. That trophy for their team’s only win sat on the sports desk at the Bangkok Post and was regularly pointed out to me when I later worked at the Post.
A: That’s a tough question, and involves papers in Sydney, London, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Cambodia. All the papers I worked on were learning curves, for differing reasons, and they all had their own challenges.
One that really stood out to me and was exciting to be involved with was The Phnom Penh Post. I took over as editor-in-chief just after the paper went from a weekly to a daily; the newsroom was full of young interns just out of college and there was a lack of experienced staff. We quickly turned that newsroom into a functioning daily operation and thanks mainly to the local staff, we broke some very good stories.
The combination of locals working with foreigners was a success – the locals would get the tips, follow up with phone calls, do most of the groundwork, then sit with the foreign reporters as they wrote the story. In my four years there, the paper won 24 international media awards. I also won the gold award from the World Association of Newspapers for the 68-page special edition I put together for The Phnom Penh Post’s 20th anniversary, something I’m very proud of.
Q: Which of your fellow journalists do you most admire and why?
A: Another tough question as I’ve worked with so many good people over a very long period of time. I’ll start with my father, who was the sports editor of a paper in the country town where I grew up. He later moved to Sydney as a racing writer and held senior positions with both the Packer and Murdoch organisations. He taught me the basics, plus a few tricks, and those lessons and advice were the most valuable I ever had.
Paul Ruffini at the Sunday Bangkok Post was one of the best I worked with. Another I admired but never worked with was The Age’s Lindsay Murdoch. Others include Bernie Leo from the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Charlie Webel from the Daily Telegraph in London, Graeme Loveridge and Chris Burslem at The Nation and Gordon Watts at Asia Times. I better stop now before the list becomes a very long one.
Q: You’ve met and interviewed many interesting folks over the years – who stands out and why?
A: In Thailand, one of the most interesting people I’ve met, and worked with for two years, was Pansak Vinyaratn. He has been the chief advisor to three prime ministers, all of whom were kicked out in coups – Chatichai Choonhavan, Taksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra.
Pansak was a graduate of the London School of Economics, among other places, a very smart but eccentric guy, and a visionary in so many ways. Many of the successful populist policies credited to prime ministers were his ideas.
In Cambodia, one of the most interesting people I became friends with was Prince Thomico Sisawath, the late King Sihanouk’s personal advisor, and cousin. Thomico was at Sihanouk’s side on trips to Beijing where they hung out with Chairman Mao, to North Korea to stay with Kim Il-sung etc. He’s a very funny guy and he has some great stories.
A: When the Thai army opened fire on protesters in 1992 was probably the closest I ever came to being shot. I was with my Nation colleague and fellow Aussie Chris Burslem when the army arrived on Rajadamnoen Avenue that night. A lot of other media were there too near the Phan Fa Bridge.
No one was expecting the army to open fire, but they did and it caused a mass panic and everybody ran. Because it was at night, tracer rounds were whizzing past our ears as we ran for cover up a small side street. Most of the rounds were fired in the air, we found out later, but a lot were also fired into the crowd.
As we were running off the main road, a Thai student next to me was hit in the back and half fell on me, so I grabbed him around the waist and while still running, dragged him off the main road and out of the line of fire. I thought he was only slightly wounded, but as I put him down on the side street, I realised I had blood all over my shirt and the poor guy was dead. Then the shooting started again and I had to run, eventually hiding in a shop doorway. His body was one of many quickly taken away by the army after that first volley, so I never knew his name or what happened to him.
Q: What literary figures do you admire the most and why?
A: I admire some of the great Australian writers like Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, Tom Keneally, Colleen McCulloch and my cousin Brenda Walker, and the reason I like them is because they captured the spirit and character of our country.
Q: Which city have you enjoyed living in the most?
A: Bangkok has been my home on and off for many years now and I enjoy living here because the people are friendly, the food’s great and mostly cheap, there is always entertainment of all kinds, and you can also find a quiet place to reflect. I also loved Phnom Penh in Cambodia, but I fear the charm will soon be lost there in the scramble to develop amid an avalanche of Chinese money.
A: Many, many things, but not bushfires. I grew up in a country town on the east coast and we surfed every weekend in crystal-clear water on deserted, pristine beaches. Australia is such a beautiful country in so many ways, and unique, and I do miss that at times.
Q: In your experience, what are the main similarities and differences between Phnom Penh and Bangkok?
A: The first thing that struck me when I arrived in Phnom Penh was how much like Thailand is was, 40 years earlier. Similar architecture with temples and government buildings, similar language, and the people were very similar. But the differences very soon become clear. Cambodia survived a genocide and years of war that Thailand never had, and that certainly left a scar on everyone. Scratch the surface in Cambodia and the scars run deep. Their entire country was destroyed and they had to start again, not so many years ago. One thing I did admire in Cambodia was the determination of the young generation to rebuild their country. They look at Thailand and wonder where they’d now be if Pol Pot hadn’t come along.
Q: What has changed most about journalism since you first started reporting/editing?
A: Everything has changed. When I started we used typewriters. When I was a crime reporter for an afternoon paper in Sydney, The Sun, in the early 1980s, we has to scribble our stories into a notebook in shorthand and dictate them over a two-way radio to the office. Everything has changed over the years and the challenge has been keeping up with it.
Q: Any advice for young journos starting out?
A: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you’re not sure about something. That was one of the most important things my father taught me, and in my opinion, one of the most valuable assets you can have. If you try to bluff your way through something, or make out you know something when you don’t, you’ll get caught out very quickly. It’s better to swallow your pride and ask. From my experience, people are happy to explain things to those who don’t know.
Q: Any items on your bucket list?
A: One is to take my grandson and my daughter and her husband on a slow cruise around Phang Nga Bay, which I still think is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, on the Silolona, one of my favourite boats.
Another would be taking my wife around Australia in a motorhome or camper, stopping where and when we want. A trip around Europe would be nice too, taking in many of the places I never got to on previous trips there. And Canada, in the summer: my parents went there and loved it and I’ve always wanted to go. But not when it’s cold.