We chat with Finbarr Bermingham, the European Union correspondent for the South China Morning Post, as he steps into a lively coffee spot in downtown Brussels. He fits right in with the gregarious mood.
You’re Irish. Are you from the North?
Yep. From a place in the northwest called Enniskillen, a beautiful island town. There’s a lot of fishing and tourism but not really much in the way of industry and jobs, unfortunately, so everybody has to leave when they get to a certain age.
And your point of departure was journalism?
I took a circuitous route to get to where I am. I graduated in 2005 and moved from Belfast to Edinburgh in Scotland, where I started out as a music journalist for a magazine called The Skinny. It was a lot of fun, but not exactly feasible – I was also working in call centres and bars. I went back to university and studied journalism, but when I graduated from postgrad in Brighton, the Great Recession had happened, the UK employment market bottomed out and newspapers were haemorrhaging staff. I went to teach English in South Korea and ended up writing quite a bit for Irish newspapers. Kim Jong Il puffing his chest kickstarted my career in a way. He blew up a South Korean warship, attacked a couple of islands. After covering that, I went back to London with a pretty good CV.
And how did you find your way to Hong Kong’s paper of record?
I started at the very bottom rung of the ladder as an editor for a small startup economics magazine in London, transitioned to Global Trade Review and worked my way up there and eventually moved to Hong Kong as their Asia editor. By this point you had the “beauty” of Donald Trump – I joke, but he was good for me because he started a trade war with China as I was living in Hong Kong and reporting on trade. The managing editor of the South China Morning Post and I met at a drinks reception, got drunk together and, basically, he called me a few months later and said, “I don’t remember too much about that day, but I do remember you know your stuff on trade, so we’d like you to come over and work for us.”
How has the move changed your reporting focus?
I get to report more broadly on geopolitics, human rights, sanctions – the Russia-China relationship falls into my wheelhouse. In Hong Kong, information has become a really scarce commodity as China has cracked down on journalists. In Brussels, it’s the swamp of Europe, there’s always a lobbyist or a PR or a staffer around with a story or spin.
Has the crackdown on journalism and human rights in Hong Kong impacted your work?
I have no issues. There’s never been a scenario where somebody said you can’t write this, but I get the impression that all journalists in Hong Kong are waiting to see where the axe will fall next.
Are there any issues you’re regularly covering that are overlooked in the EU bubble?
Honestly, Hong Kong. Hong Kong has fallen off the radar to an extreme degree. There are some people in the European Parliament who are still vocal, but it has fallen off the agenda at the foreign affairs and ministerial level, the European Council level. I think there’s a sense that it’s at the point where there’s not anything that can be done. The focus has changed to Taiwan, and policymakers – not that I agree with them – have to be judicious with how they devote their energies.