Phnom Penh Post newspapers are seen on a desk in a picture taken on May 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters/ Samrang Pring
In Cambodia and elsewhere, the choice can be between negative reporting and PR. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

Why, I am asked occasionally, is my reporting so negative? Don’t you ever have something good to say?

A rather amusing and well-written hit-piece on me, published recently in the Khmer Times (I suspect in response to my own critique of this same Cambodian newspaper published days earlier) put it: “David Hutt is a go-to writer and encyclopedia on all-thing-bad about Cambodia. He can write weekly and has great talent in spotting everything wrong about whatever Cambodia is doing.”

Even though meant sarcastically (and I applaud the sarcastic writing style of whoever the author really was, as well as for them noticing my caustic work-ethic), I would say that I rarely write negatively of Cambodia itself and certainly not of ordinary Cambodians, but only of Cambodian politicians. And on occasions there are good things to say, but it would be nice if Phnom Penh gave us hacks less reason for criticism.  

As such, negativity by default is not good – neither is optimism by default. (Maximum skepticism should be the order of the day.) However, I have tried to ply my trade with two considerations.

“The most corrupting desire to afflict a journalist,” the British journalist Nick Cohen once noted, is “the urge to give readers what they want.” An equally corrupting desire is the urge to make friends or to be liked, especially with (and by) sources. Indeed, if popularity is what you crave, then try another career; it forces you to make choices no journalist should make.

After reporting from Cambodia for five years, I consider it some success that I managed to annoy a good many people, certainly those within both the ruling party and the main opposition party – after coming close to being kicked out of the country by the former, I am told, and after being blacklisted for comments by the acting leader of the latter. Indeed, as with the BBC in my native Britain, one can tell you’re doing a good job when despised by all political sides.  

Clearly, though, there’s a pervading narrative that journalism is too negative – a narrative that says more about readers’ new expectations than the industry itself. One international study published last year found that 39% of respondents thought journalism was too negative, although 44% said they neither agreed nor disagreed when asked this question.

“Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is,” the psychologist Steven Pinker wrote some years back.

Believe me, it would be nice if we political journalists didn’t have to focus on the negatives so often. As part of my normal working day, I spend at least an hour or two reading the news from across the world. Naturally, it’s almost all negative – and, more naturally, it leaves me with the same depressive view of society as I imagine other readers feel.

(Perhaps readers would do well to remember that journalism is necessarily about aberrations – about uncommon events that the vast majority of people will never experience – rather than a depiction of most people’s everyday lives.)

But, then, what’s the alternative? Either we hacks must make the conscious effort to avoid negative issues, which would then distort the news and elicit accusations of favoritism or, worse still, not informing readers of key issues.

Indeed, just consider how news reporting about the Covid-19 pandemic from January until March was seen as either playing down its seriousness or scaremongering. Or, instead, we journalists openly admit to being activists or PR agents. Indeed, if you want to read only positive news, there’s plenty out there for you. It’s called PR and propaganda.

Aside from the almost daily press conferences and press statements put out by ministers or spokespeople, ruling parties and officials also have their own social-media channels, which reach far more people than most media.

Take Southeast Asia. In Vietnam and Laos, the only legally permissible newspapers are those owned by the state and, therefore, the ruling communist parties. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana, owns a good chunk of the country’s television and radio stations, while most of the others are controlled by tycoons with close connections to the ruling party. Similar problems exist from Singapore to the Philippines and Indonesia.

In a survey last year by the International Federation of Journalists and Southeast Asia Journalist Unions, titled “Holding the Line: South East Asia Media Freedom Report 2019,” by the 37% of the respondents who said “the media situation in their country had not improved or remained unchanged in the past year,” the main reason given was media ownership.

When I arrived in Phnom Penh in 2014, there were several independent publications. But The Cambodia Daily was shut down in 2017, over spurious tax arrears the government happened to find, and The Phnom Penh Post was bought out in 2018 by government-friendly interests.

There are still independent publications around, but I’d estimate that at least 90% of all journalistic content about Cambodia, both in English and Khmer, is published in either government-friendly or government-owned publications.

I might be a “go-to writer and encyclopedia on all-thing-bad about Cambodia,” but, believe me, the vast majority of Cambodians aren’t reading my writing; they’re reading what the government wants them to read, which is almost always positive.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.