Luke Hunt sits at the top of Cambodia’s English-language media market. The 54-year-old Australian journalist has lived in Kingdom on and off since 2000, and with the recent departure of some of his comrades-in-arms he’s one of the most knowledgeable foreign reporters in residence.
After years in the trade, Hunt has also managed something most freelance journalists can only dream of: a steady stream of high-profile clients, including The Economist, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, The New York Times, The Age, Voice of America and Hong Kong’s now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review.
During his career, Hunt has learned the discipline required of freelancers to organise their time efficiently. For Hunt that means starting the day with tea – “loose leaf tea, never teabags” – and preferably an Australian brand, such as Robur Tea or Billy Tea Campfire Brew. His preferred drink used to be coffee, but he gave that up, along with beer, when he quit smoking.
Morning is also the time to run through the day’s schedule and diligently check up on events. “A diary is really important. You learn that from 20 years working on wire services,” he says. “If you’re not organised in journalism and you’re freelancing, you’re dead in the water.”
Then he gets to work, first trawling the internet to see what’s happened across the globe overnight and any updates on important national stories. While this takes a couple of hours, checking up on breaking news is a continuous task throughout the day. Then come the emails, before work on a news story or longer feature.
While the daily schedule of a freelancer is often filled with ups, downs and uncertainties, Hunt says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “There’s only a few times a year when I have to get out of bed before I want to and I sleep when I want, I eat when I want, I work when I want and that’s a good thing,” he says.
Work trips, however, are a different affair. “If I’m on the road, which is six months a year, then it’s completely different,” he says. “Then you might be waking up at 5am and chasing the light or chasing the story.”
Hunt cut his teeth in Cambodia in the early 1990s while working in Saigon as a young reporter. Australian media contacted him following the kidnap and murder of three Western backpackers in 1994 by the Khmer Rouge.
In the years since, he’s co-authored book Barings Lost about a financial scandal in Singapore, and covered major conflict zones in Kashmir and Sri Lanka. He worked as Cambodia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse (AFP) from 2000 to 2005.
While he worked for an establishment news organisation, he wasn’t afraid to take gonzo-style risks, recalls journalist and author Robert Carmichael, who met Hunt when he was still a cub reporter. Hunt convinced Carmichael to drive to Pailin province to meet former Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea around the time the UN and government agreed to a tribunal.
“At the time, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea lived on the same small compound,” says Carmichael. “Khieu Samphan was very hospitable, not least because two barangs turned up at his wooden house in a clearing right next to the border. Although Nuon Chea’s daughter claimed he was in Thailand for medical treatment, I recall Luke was convinced he had seen the old man parting a curtain to peer out at us.”
While working for AFP in Cambodia, his duties took Hunt to the Middle East as a “roving reporter” where he covered Afghanistan and Iraq following the US invasion. His knowledge of the region was extensive, according to Carmichael, who watched news of the Sep. 11 attacks with Hunt at the FCC, along with fellow-journalist Peter Maguire.
“He knew immediately it was al-Qaeda behind the attack, and paced up and down saying loudly, again and again, “The world changed today! The world changed today!” Of course, he was right on both counts, and while the anchors on CNN were struggling to find the motivation for the attack, Luke knew exactly what was going on,” says Carmichael.
After some time abroad, Hunt returned to live in Cambodia in 2012. Since then, his focus has shifted mostly to Southeast Asia and passing on his reporting skills as a professor at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh.
As a “lifelong member” of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, he’s easy to spot at most of their events with his booming voice, broad Australian accent and breezy button-down shirts.
A longstanding patron of the now-shuttered Cantina bar on Riverside – once the centre of Phnom Penh journalism – Hunt says his favourite bar is now Larry’s 100st Bar & Grill on Riverside. Mexicano, a relatively new addition to Phnom Penh, is another favourite haunt, as well as The Lost Room. He’s also been spotted, on occasion, at Red Fox bar.
At whatever location he’s found, he’s most likely engaged in shop talk or sharing his wisdom with less-experienced reporters. “These days Luke’s seen as something of an elder statesman of journalism in Cambodia; not yet, perhaps, occupying the lofty heights held by folks like Mike Hayes, Elizabeth Becker and Tim Page, but not far off them. He’s certainly been good for Cambodia and journalism here; and I reckon Cambodia’s been good for him too,” says Carmichael.