David Bell

  • CHS 1954-1956
  • Left school after Year 11 for a job in early Australian TV
  • Led international media relations for Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific.

David Bell had his mind set on a career in Australia’s embryonic television industry – much against his father’s wishes. But it was slow-going, and he had not progressed much past scene-shifting on the Humphrey B Bear set at NWS9 Adelaide, picking up shards of experience in news presentation and occasional fill-in camera work, when he was sounded out for a promotions role with Tasman Empire Airways. It was the mid-1960s and the airline was in the throws of transitioning to become Air New Zealand.

Bell believed the challenge of an early career change outweighed the uncertainty of advancement in television and moved to Auckland, not realising then that this would be a foot on the first rung of what would become a remarkable career in international media relations. It would be a career which would peak with his induction within the hallowed halls of the diversified global Swire Group in Hong Kong and their airline, Cathay Pacific.

David Thomas Bell, who died, aged 79, in Sydney, on April 2, after a short illness, often recalled how his original television career choice had incurred the displeasure of his father. “He did not talk to me for a long time after,” he said. The airline quickly relocated him from Auckland to Hong Kong to promote their new presence in the old Colony. While he was in that role, and faced with unwanted reassignment back to Auckland, he became a pinch-hit PR person for the Hong Kong Tourist Association and was already discussing a return to Australia when he was tapped on the shoulder by the mighty global Swire organisation to head up their new media relations section, breaking exciting new ground.

For Swire, an integral part of the very fabric of the Colony, just acknowledging there was a role for media liaison, was a major step. But it was not a simple case of “here’s a new job, fill it”. Bell was flown to London to front the Swire board and convince them that he was their man and could be entrusted with innermost details of the Swire activity. He also confided later, in a published farewell to Hong Kong, that interview had been one of the scariest moments in his life and career.  His valuable experience assisting at the birth of Air New Zealand equipped him to head the expanding Swire airline Cathay Pacific’s PR department, a job which gave Bell instant significant status in the complex social structure of Hong Kong, particularly its expatriate community.

Operating almost 25 years in the rarified Swire atmosphere also helped Bell hone quite extraordinary skill of tact and diplomacy, exuding a trustworthiness which would, later, both in Hong Kong and back in Australia, be among his many attributes. An avalanche of condolence messages from around the world, read at his live-streamed Macquarie Park memorial service, singled out these attributes for special mention.

In professional life he became a personification of his old school motto – learning to be considerate of others. Journalists in travel and aviation in Australia came to know Bell when he reprised his role as Cathay Pacific’s PR man in Sydney from 2000-2011, returning to the old firm when his life-long friend Ken Morton vacated the role.

Bell is survived by wife Siew, who had been an Air New Zealand colleague, sons Nick and Richard, and daughter Caroline, mother of grandson Jack.

Tribute written by John Blair, May 2020. “I am a retired journalist in Sydney – ex SMH, Sun, News Local etc. of over 50 years’ experience. A close friend from my years as a correspondent in Hong Kong, David J.T. Bell, a former Camberwell High School pupil, died last week. David had a rather remarkable career which took him from news presenting in early Australian TV to the dizzy heights of the global Swire Group; Head of PR for Air New Zealand, then Cathay Pacific Airways in Hong Kong’s head office and more recently in Australia.”   Updated 2020

Return to Alumni