Self-Censorship at the South China Morning Post?

According to an article published on June 19 in the Asia Sentinel, an internal squabble at the Hong Kong-based English language newspaper the South China Morning Post has led some to raise questions regarding the journalistic ethics of the long-established newspaper. The quarrel—between the SCMP’s editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei and the newspaper’s senior sub-editor Alex Price—reportedly centered around Wang’s decision to downgrade a major news story on the suspicious death of Tiananmen Square activist Li Wangyang at a hospital in Hunan to a mere brief. Though the SCMP later published a full-length “focus page” on the story, some worry that its initial “self-censorship” of the story may serve to further erode the credibility of the paper, which has long been considered one of the few sources of serious journalism in East Asia. The Shanghaiist has interpreted Wang Xiangwei’s initial reluctance to fully investigate the story as a sign that the SCMP might be being bought over by Beijing. This is because Wang, who was appointed editor-in-chief in early 2012 and is the first mainland-born chief editor of the paper, is a member at the national level of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Similarly, Asia Sentinel has expressed fears that Wang may just be the “final nail in the SCMP coffin” after what has been a “serial termination of political cartoonists and China reporters.”

The editorial in Asia Sentinel also published details of the e-mail exchange between Wang Xiangwei and Alex Price:

Price: “A lot of people are wondering why we nibbed the Li Wangyang story last night. It does seem rather odd. Any chance you can shed some light on the matter?”

Wang: “I made that decision.” ...

Price: “Any chance you say why? It’s just that to the outside world it looks an awful lot like self-censorship.” ...

Wang: “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.”

Price: “Li Wangyang, a good man died for his cause and we turned it from a story into a brief. The rest of Hong Kong splashed on it ... Your staff are understandably concerned by this. News is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations. Please explain the decision to reduce the suspicious death of Li Wangyang to a brief. I need to be able to explain it to my friends who are asking why we did it. I’m sorry but your reply of ‘it is my decision, if you don’t like it you know what to do’ is not enough in such a situation. Frankly it seems to be saying ‘shut up or go.’…

“Yet on the day it counted we reduced the story to a nib. Journalistic ethics are at stake. The credibility of the South China Morning Post is at stake. Your staff—and readers—deserve an answer.”

To address the situation, on June 21, Wang published a statement in the SCMP newspaper in which he made no direct mention of either Price’s e-mails or subsequent allegations made by the media that Wang’s political background had led him to compromise the newspaper’s journalistic ethics. Instead, Wang said, the reason why he chose not to prioritize coverage of Li’s death on the first day the story broke is because he wanted to wait “until more facts and details surrounding the circumstances of this case could be established.”

Though this most recent incident may seem to have reached a conclusion, the controversy has inevitably renewed a broader debate regarding the extent to which the SCMP remains an influential source of quality news in Hong Kong. Despite the continued profitability of the SCMP, the newspaper has experienced a number of personnel shakeups and editorial controversies long before Wang Xiangwei took up his current post as editor-in-chief. Starting in the mid-1990s, when the Kuok family—viewed widely as pro-Beijing—bought a controlling interest in the newspaper, there ensued a number of high-profile sackings of journalists such as Willy Lam, the paper’s China editor, and Jasper Becker, chief of the SCMP’s Beijing bureau, ostensibly due to budget concerns. More recently, tumult within the SCMP newsroom came to the fore with the 2007 departure of the US-born short-lived editor-in-chief Mark Clifford, four months after he had controversially sacked two staff members for an internal practical joke.

Unlike the Asia Sentinel, others see the recent SCMP controversy as symptomatic of not just personnel problems, but larger issues having to do with the newspaper’s business model (in particular, its online paywall) and its company culture. In terms of the newsroom culture, as Patrick Smith of the International Herald Tribune noted in 2006, the “Post has long been multicultural [with] a rainbow of editors and reporters of British, American, Chinese, Indian, and Sri Lankan extraction.” Thus, the firings carried out by then-editor Mark Clifford was seen by many staff members as “a cultural skirmish waiting to ignite.”

The appointment of Wang Xiangwei may have just added fuel to the fire to what Smith called a “clash of civilizations” at the paper. Along with Wang, there arrived at the newspaper an increasing mainland presence in the form of mainland-born staffers and Mandarin language. According to Zhongnanhai blog, “This is a tectonic, and uneasy, shift for foreigners and Hong Kong people who spent years building the SCMP into a news leader in Hong Kong.”

In the end, regardless of whether the constant turmoil at the newspaper stems from personnel or systemic problems, the most recent scandal provides further testament to the fact that the South China Morning Post is long overdue for a substantive makeover.