One of The Post’s former contributors reflects on the improbable origins of the country’s first English-language paper – and the equally improbable phenomenon of a newspaper owner who was actually liked by his staff
More than two decades ago, American Michael Hayes arrived in Cambodia with his then-wife Kathleen and their life savings of about US$50,000 just as the United Nations began pouring troops into the country to ensure security at elections designed to end three decades of war.
Armed with a royal seal from King Norodom Sihanouk, he founded The Phnom Penh Post from scratch, and for the next 16 years was responsible for a newspaper that enjoyed a reputation for telling the truth while maintaining a sympathetic ear to this country’s plight and its tragic history.
But this reputation came at a price. Several Khmer contemporaries were assassinated and there were many sleepless nights from the top floor of his home and office in Street 264. Hayes literally slept one floor above the newsroom that produced every issue, once every two weeks.
“Michael Hayes was the most unlikely newspaper publisher and editor when he founded The Post in 1992, after multiple career changes,” said Lindsay Murdoch, a long-time friend and correspondent with The Age in Melbourne.
“But amid the chaos of the early 1990s United Nations mission in Cambodia, The Post’s office under Michael’s became the go-to place for visiting foreign correspondents and photographers from across the globe – Michael knew the value of networking.”
He said journalists and photographers gravitated to The Post where they would find out the latest gossip, what stories were developing and what scandal was afoot in the various UN battalions.
“And they were numerous. Who could forget the exchange of mortar fire over control of a brothel? We in return would feed Michael and his journalists stories and tell them what we knew,” Murdoch said.
By mid-2001, his marriage had collapsed and financial insecurity was a constant. The wars were over and efforts to put the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge on trial were dominating headlines.
As AFP bureau chief from 2001 to 2004, The Post and its competitor The Cambodia Daily were highly prized sources of information. The Internet was only just making its presence felt as a news source and Cambodia as a hunting ground for journalists was all about primary reporting.
In those days, all the major wires staffed their bureaus here with western trained, full salaried, foreign correspondents who spent most of their time writing about efforts to establish a Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Like today, tribunal critics were loud and too often the critics carping about the tribunal’s inadequacies would command the kind of attention that many of us thought belonged to Pol Pot’s many victims, who did become an all important part of the newspaper’s editorial focus.
“There is an old saying that the only essential for real success in journalism is a tough independent mind, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. It also helps if you have an ability to steal words and phrases from your friends and colleagues,” Murdoch said.
“Michael had all those essential qualities and more, and grew The Post into one of Asia’s most respected publications.”
Money was always tight but Hayes had a knack for attracting young journalists who’d work their hearts out on the smell of an oily rag, or on occasions for the infamous coupons, which were used in barter deals with advertisers.
The likes of Ker Munthit, Sara Colm, Leo Dobbs, Liam Cochrane, Rob Carmichael, Nate Thayer, Matthew Grainger, Jason Barber, Hurley Scroggins and Peter Sainsbury, along with scores of other seasoned journalists, have spent time at The Post and dined out at Comme à la Maison as a result.
Hayes once told me he “daydreamed about finding boxes of cash”, and once told me that “if I had a buck for every time I worried about money I’d be a millionaire”.
Hayes got a way with it because, as Murdoch said: “Michael has a big golden heart and has remained a mate to many of us.” It’s a terrific compliment; after all, how many newspaper owners can say their staff actually like them!
Luke Hunt is an Australian journalist and author who has covered politics, economics and war in Asia and the Middle East for more than 30 years for many of the world’s leading mastheads, including The Phnom Penh Post. He also lectures at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh and hopes to soon publish his latest book on Vietnam.