Michael Hayes never wanted to hire me. He had too many interns already, he told me when I pitched up at The Phnom Penh Post office in the summer of 2002, and one of them did not even know the name of the King. I can hardly blame him; I was 22, and had neither a university degree nor a day’s journalistic experience.
However, what I did have was persistence. I tracked him down to a bar one night and demanded a Q&A on Cambodian politics. If I passed, he had to hire me, and I had done my homework. He kept his word and told me to turn up at the office the following Tuesday – which I did, much to the annoyance of news editor Robert Carmichael, who shared Michael’s view that there were too many over-enthusiastic, unpaid interns battling to use the office’s four computers.
And so began a year and a bit, with the paper teaching me everything I know about journalism. Had I been back home in England doing an internship at a local paper, my beat would have been cats stuck up trees and local hospital closures. But there I was, interviewing ministers, exposing corruption, and dodging bullets at demonstrations. There were so many memorable moments: drinking moonshine at midday with hilltribes in Ratanakiri; getting a Kru Khmer mystic to cast a spell to make Sean Connery fall in love with me (still no result, which with hindsight is probably for the best); chasing the crowds of young men on motorcycles as they torched Thai businesses during the anti-Thai riots in January 2003.
It seems cliched to say Cambodia felt like it was in a period of transition – it is a country in a perpetual state of transition – but in the run-up to the 2003 election there was an optimism about the future after such a dismal past. The international press descended on the country, and it felt like real change was possible. When I look at Cambodia today, it is hard not to wonder what happened to all that optimism. A very small segment of the population has got wealthier and the buildings reach higher into the sky, but the same man remains in power and for most Cambodians, corruption and poverty are simply part and parcel of daily life.
As for myself, I remained an over-enthusiastic, unpaid intern the whole time I was at The Post, never graduating the ranks of paid staff – unless you count the meal vouchers Michael gave me once for a terrible Indian restaurant. But far more valuable was the opportunity Michael gave me to get my break in journalism, the guidance of Robert – still one of the best news editors I have ever worked with – and the shared passion of an amazing team. It was The Post at its best: bold, fearless, fiercely independent, and committed to giving young Khmer and
foreign journalists the best possible start to their career. Charlotte McDonald-Gibson was a Post reporter from July 2002 to September 2003. She stayed in Asia for four years working for Agence-France Presse in Thailand, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and is now the TIME correspondent in Brussels. She recently published a book, Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis.
foreign journalists the best possible start to their career.
Charlotte McDonald-Gibson was a Post reporter from July 2002 to September 2003. She stayed in Asia for four years working for Agence-France Presse in Thailand, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and is now the TIME correspondent in Brussels. She recently published a book, Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis.