Interview: Simon Farrell
Favourite hangouts in Japan:
Near my office is the slick Tokyo American Club—with diverse staff, unrivalled networking, a huge library, celebrated wine cellar, swimming and barbecues on the roof … and a shoe-polishing machine.
Then there’s the British Embassy Tokyo’s giddy white ceilings with gentle fans and ornate cornices; spiral staircases and thick rugs on shiny timber floors; and imposing royal portraits and slick modern art. This all helps to make the compound’s grand residences what they are. Located opposite the Imperial Palace moat since 1929, the buildings overlook green and pleasant gardens.
The look of awe on the faces of visiting business people who sneak selfies in front of the welcoming chairs, royal images and scattered books illustrating British cities, culture and countryside suggest excellent value for British taxpayers.
As well as helping sustain bilateral political, economic and cultural ties, the embassy offers consular services, including resources for about 16,000 UK citizens in Japan.
So what do you actually do?
Fortunately, I am supported by the most loyal, skilful and hard-working team and business partner, all of whom look out for me, and vice versa.
Apart from overseeing and proofreading our three business and lifestyle magazines—for the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ ACUMEN), the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (The ACCJ Journal) and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (The Canadian)—I help brief our teams on video, social media and other marketing gigs; monitor their progress, and approve or amend such work before it goes to clients.
Aside from the odd HR, accounts and other issues associated with being a founding partner of an expanding small company, since 2014 I’ve been on the BCCJ Executive Committee (Excom). This position requires that I join monthly Excom meetings at the British Embassy, Tokyo.
Moreover, since I am the Excom task force leader for the annual BCCJ British Business Awards, I find myself spending some time helping plan the final ceremony, especially as the annual event nears.
Who or what inspired you to go into journalism?
The fathers of two high school friends were career journalists. One was a Fleet Street veteran and The Daily Mirror’s Washington correspondent in the 1970s. He also provided news coverage for the left-wing tabloid during the 1980 St. Paul’s riot in Bristol, England, and the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict with Argentina.
The other father, a photographer for the Bristol Evening Post, would take us behind the scenes and goalposts on match days at Ashton Gate stadium, the home of the Bristol City football club. As a top-tier team, it hosted the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. What I saw and heard from these two journalists hooked me for life.
Tell us about your background
I’ve spent about 18 years in Japan, over three stints since 1987. After graduating from the London School of Journalism in 1992, my first job was as a stringer in Havana, Cuba, for the Daily Telegraph. Unfortunately, after just a few months, it was clear that Fidel Castro was stronger than his East European comrades, so the foreign desk in London soon tired of my stories on dwindling rations, decimated sugar crops, and crumbling colonial infrastructure.
During a seven-hour stopover in Dubai, I begged a local newspaper to employ me as a reporter on the local news beat, and I threw away my onward ticket.
After a dry but intriguing 12 months of dodging busy government censors who banned certain words at The Khaleej Times, the next stop was South Africa, as it was soon to stage its first democratic elections. Staying longer than I had planned, I was there about eight years.
Experiencing—with the global media—the Rainbow Nation’s relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to writing the world’s most progressive constitution was pretty amazing. But once it became clear there would be no racist bloodbath, my foreign-based commissioning editors soon went silent again.
I then settled into a soft job on the lifestyle desk at a Cape Town weekend newspaper and, as the opportunity arose, sold occasional travel, adventure, lifestyle and crime pieces to UK and US publications.
Africa also inspired me to write two books: Top Getaways in Southern Africa, published by Reader’s Digest in 2000 and South Africa Chic published by Didier Millet in 2008.
After having endured umpteen burglaries, car thefts and other close shaves, I was relieved to return to Tokyo to take a steady page editor’s post at the Yomiuri Shimbun’s English-language daily, now called The Japan News. After about three years editing and designing news, opinion and feature pages, I became editor-in-chief of the ACCJ Journal.
By 2009, my business partner Robert Heldt and I had established Custom Media and launched BCCJ ACUMEN, and here we are. Our firm also successfully bid to publish The ACCJ Journal—which was a great personal and professional honour for me as its former editor-in-chief with a previous publisher—and, more recently, The Canadian.
What attributes do you need for your job?
Thick skin and a forgiving nature, while being organised and punctual. Further, it is crucial to have an obsessive eye, ear, nose, heart and pen for detail, accuracy, clarity, creativity and consistency. Being open to fresh ideas, new contributors, trends, gossip and laughs is also important. The fact that I quit smoking, walk more than ever, and drink more water than coffee or alcohol these days, has put me in control of my health, which helps, too.
What are some of the challenges of your role?
Understanding digital developments and convincing advertisers that hard copy is here to stay, if only as a key niche product.
What are the best parts of your job?
Putting to bed on time and on budget another monthly magazine and meeting selfless people who do good for others or create great things. Few other jobs open doors to meeting the likes of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Sir Richard Branson, Sir James Dyson OM CBE FRS FREng or Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA FBCS. But the most interesting people are often the unsung individuals, who keep a low profile and never expect recognition.
What do you think are the major challenges facing the publishing sector?
- Biased media and readers, viewers or listeners who can’t tell—or won’t acknowledge—the difference between real and fake news.
- Convincing advertisers that click rates are not all they appear to be and that niche hard copy can put them ahead of the digital herd.
- Keeping readers engaged with original, interesting and useful content.
- Satisfying a sceptical public.
- Achieving the right balance between digital and traditional.
- Lack of trust, transparency and governance in business and politics.
- Declining revenues and increasing costs.