[This review was first published in Media International Australia, May 2016; 159 (1) as ‘Book Review: The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan’]
By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
Few of us would pass up the chance to spend a year working in the Kingdom of Bhutan – mythologized in media coverage as a Shangri-La nestled in the Himalayas with its own Gross National Happiness Index.
Australian journalist and academic Bunty Avieson seized that opportunity and travelled (with her partner and young daughter) to work on a fledgling private newspaper in that tiny nation soon after its Fourth King had licensed it as part of a modernisation initiative.
The Dragon’s Voice – How Modern Media Found Bhutan (available here) is Avieson’s memoir of that experience. It is an entertaining work of popular non-fiction reflecting the author’s writing acumen and sense of narrative as a former editor of Woman’s Day and editorial director of New Idea. Yet it also has a depth of scholarship drawing upon Avieson’s more recent work as an academic researcher and journalism educator.
The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan
Author: Bunty Avieson
University of Queensland Press, 2015, 240pp
ISBN: 978 0 7022 5357 7
The people of Bhutan are predominantly Buddhist and this navigation of opposites in life’s course is what Buddhists call the ‘Middle Path’. There are numerous examples throughout the book of Avieson and her Bhutanese newspaper colleagues endeavouring to find such a middle way between extremes.
Avieson takes up the challenge of portraying the deeper layers of a country whose image is over-simplified by its international media framing as a quaint oddity whose citizens are happily trapped in a bygone era on top of the world.
She does not shy away from important issues of censorship (including self-censorship), crime, poverty, natural disasters, domestic violence and the toll of the rapid pace of modernization.
Several threads run through the work, but one of the most important is the paradox centred upon the birth of a newspaper in Bhutan; coinciding with the death of printed newspapers in much of the developed world.
It is a particularly Buddhist and Bhutanese approach to journalism adopted by the Observer’s leadership team – mindful journalism in action. (See the reviewer’s own work on mindful journalism here.)
Avieson explains the newspaper’s owners Tenzin Wangdi and Phuntsho Wangmo asked some of the nation’s wisest and most ethical intellectuals to help develop guiding principles for the newspaper.
The resulting mission statement began with a Buddhist assertion “that all things exist in interdependence is an age-old wisdom”, before vowing to “uphold and strengthen the values and principles that bind this small but great kingdom together”. It continued: “We are a voice with a conscience, and our efforts are aimed at enriching people’s lives through unbiased content intended to inform, educate and entertain.”
Avieson proceeds to chronicle the successes gained and the challenges faced by the newspaper’s journalists and other staff as they set about redefining reporting about Bhutanese people in a Bhutanese style. She details the very practical problems of distribution to remote regions and the inexperience of staff, along with bizarre news topics including one about a town where men believe their wives have crooked vaginas and another about a ghost that lives in a rock.
The newspaper relied largely on government advertising, creating a fear of retaliation over critical stories, a situation not unique to Bhutan. Buddhist principles even influenced the types of advertisements the owners will carry. For example, the Observer would not run ads for cars because “it would be unkind to make villagers desire something they can’t afford”.
Occasionally the reader gets an insight into the profound influence Avieson had on the newspaper in her short time there – drawing upon her many years of experience as a magazine editor with layout, design, photography commissioning and selection and in the production of themed editions and special magazines.
While her modest approach is in keeping with the Buddhist theme, the reader is left wondering how involved Avieson became in the day to day journalism of the operation.
Successful memoirs need to do much more than document a passage of the author’s life. Avieson has achieved this in The Dragon’s Voice. It is purportedly about a year in Bhutan but in the telling it prompts important questions about the media, society and life.
We are left pondering how we would do journalism differently if we had the chance to reinvent it, and then it dawns upon us that that is exactly what journalists in the developed world are trying to do right now. There is much they can learn from Avieson’s account of her time with the Bhutan Observer.
** Listen to author Bunty Avieson’s interview about the book with ABC Radio National Media Report host Richard Aedy here.
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.
© Mark Pearson 2016