McBeth is the son of a Taranaki dairy farmer and was born in Wanganui, New Zealand. He attended New Plymouth Boys' High School. McBeth commenced work at the Taranaki Herald on 8 February 1962 and moved to the Auckland Star in late 1965. He left New Zealand around 1970 and headed for Fleet Street in London, but never made it there. The cargo vessel that he was sailing on ran aground during its night-time entry into Tanjung Priok Harbour in Indonesia so McBeth spent time in Jakarta before travelling to Singapore and on to Bangkok.
He commenced employment at the Bangkok Post shortly afterwards. McBeth would go on to work with Roger Crutchley, Peter Finucane and Tony Waltham at the publication. It was at this time that he covered stories relating to the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia and the Indochinese refugee crisis and appeared briefly as an extra in Michael Cimino's film, The Deer Hunter (1978).
McBeth would also work as a freelance reporter in Thailand for Agence France-Presse, United Press International (UPI), London's Daily Telegraph and spend three years writing for Hong Kong's Asiaweek.
In May 1979, McBeth joined the Bangkok office of the Far Eastern Economic Review having been hired by its editor, Derek Davies. He wrote for the publication for the next 25 years working alongside Bertil Lintner, Paisal Sricharatchanya and Rodney Tasker. In all, he saw five coups in Thailand, including the aborted one that killed his close friend, the Australian cameraman, Neil Davis, in September 1985.
After working in Thailand, McBeth was sent to South Korea to head the Review's South Korean bureau. In his three years in Seoul, he focussed on South Korea's chaotic transformation from an authoritarian to a fledging democratic state. During his time there, he revealed together with Nayan Chanda and Shada Islam, in the Review, North Korea's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The revelation was the biggest scoop of his career, yet it sank without trace until the American mainstream media finally picked it up almost a year later.
As well as living and working in Bangkok and Seoul, McBeth spent time in the Review's offices in Manila in the Philippines and in Jakarta in Indonesia where, among other things, he wrote about feuding Filipino warlords and the fall of President Suharto.
Shortly before McBeth headed to Manila, the Australian journalist John Pilger accused him in the British New Statesman magazine of working for the CIA. This allegation, seemingly based on McBeth's brief appearance as a marine in The Deer Hunter and the fact that he had written an article for the CIA-funded news service, Forum World Features, he complained, could have put his life at risk in the Philippines as the New People's Army was "knocking people off then". According to McBeth, Pilger's allegation was "based on the fact that I had a lot of CIA contacts. But doesn't everybody"?
During his career, McBeth has reported on a wide range of stories that are recounted in his book, published in 2011, entitled Reporter. Forty Years Covering Asia. These include the investigation into the loss of Cathay Pacific Flight 700Z, which crashed near Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam on 5 June 1972 after a bomb detonated on board, and Herman Knippenberg's relentless pursuit of the Vietnamese-Indian serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who lured young foreign tourists to their deaths in Thailand and other countries across Asia. Reporter also contains details of McBeth's investigation into the break-up of major heroin trafficking rings who, during the Vietnam War, used the US military postal service and hundreds of airforce transport aircraft to transport heroin between South-East Asia and homeland bases in the United States. This resulted in his 20 May 1977 cover story for Asiaweek. Other stories covered by McBeth and featured in the book include the crackdown on the Burmese warlord and "Opium King", Khun Sa, the North Korean bombing of the Martyrs' Mausoleum in Rangoon in 1983 that killed 21 people including several South Korean Cabinet ministers, the scandal involving Bre-X and a purported enormous gold deposit at Busang in Indonesia which led to the largest fraud in the history of mining, and the Bali bombings in 2002 that killed 202 people.
A former smoker, McBeth developed thromboangiitis obliterans, or Buerger's disease, which is a rare inflammatory vascular disease arising in smokers. The disease affected his femoral artery constricting the flow of blood to his leg. This resulted in his right leg being amputated in 1992.
- Hume, T., The lost world of a wild tribe, in the Sunday Star Times, 20 March 2011 at http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/4784929/The-lost-world-of-a-wild-tribe
- Lutfia, I., Recounting a life reporting on Asia, in The Jakarta Globe, 9 March 2011 at http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/news/recounting-a-life-reporting-on-asia/427569
- McBeth, J., Reporter. Forty Years Covering Asia. Talisman Publishing, Singapore, 2011. ISBN 9789810873646
- Pollard, J., Reporter and raconteur. John McBeth's memoir doubles as a remarkable history of Thailand and Asia, in The Nation, 21 March 2011 at http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/Reporter-and-raconteur-30151276.html