Access to truth and surfeit of inquiry; The End of the South China Morning Post and legitimate investigative journalism in South Asia.
September 26, 2012
Not one media commentator can agree on the exact date when the South China Morning Post’s progression from relevance to inconsequence began, but it’s certainly been an incremental process. Considered one of the best papers in Asia, and certainly the best English Language paper, the SCMP has continually been the source for good investigative journalism in China. From its auspicious start in Asia’s most politically active city, the 109 year old paper is slowly becoming a negligible force, as it grows into the perfect example of China’s vision for a stultified news media.
Perhaps it’s lazy to imply that the rot set in after the paper was bought by the Murdoch Empire back in 1987, but that was certainly when its standing as a community paper was tested. Despite its unethical reputation however, the Murdoch group is guilty only of modernizing and commodifying what was still considered a ‘colonial era’ paper. This inevitable development marked the beginning of a shift towards a ‘corporate face’ and away from the community service that the paper had always provided. It was quickly re-floated as part of the much broader ‘SCMP publishing group’ in the early 90’s and bought by the Malaysian hotelier family, the Kuok’s.
The 90’s were a very sensitive time for press and expressive freedoms in Hong Kong, as after 150 years of separation and a decade after Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong became part of greater China under the “one country two systems” ruling. This was a socially tumultuous and frightening time for the Hong Kong Chinese, many of whom were refugees from violent communist repression. After the hand-over their worst fears were not realized however, Beijing sought to calm Hong Kong’s frightened residents; freedom of speech and assembly were upheld and for the best part of a decade the CCP stayed out of Hong Kong’s political affairs. During this time the South China Morning Post was still considered a reputable paper that made remarkable investigative finds regarding Chinese and Hong Kong politics. It kept politicians honest, and provided divergent and interesting opinions. Most importantly it faithfully served a community interested in improving their English, keeping up to date with the rest of the world and reading voices they could call their own.
Over time however, rumors emerged that the Kuok family, with an eye towards Beijing, had started to use their positions on the board of directors to effect a change in the editorial style. One after the other, newly hired and reputable editors quit the paper, meanwhile the contracts of many award winning foreigners and liberal-leaning locals were allowed to expire or had their work made impotent by the constraints of the Kuoks. In the interim, the gaps left by foreigners and disgruntled leftists were filled by staff from mainland propaganda papers. Some of these new journalists have barely attempted to hide their distaste for Westernism and Hong Kong’s distinct culture and they certainly have effected a change in the ideological output.
Consumer and industry unhappiness with the paper’s direction had been building for the better part of a decade, but the seemingly politically minded layoffs of liberal and foreign staff were just a precursor to the concerns of CCP involvement. Notably, the recent appointment of a new editor, the 10th in as many years led to real problems for the paper’s reputation; claims of blatant censorship have blighted his tenure. It certainly didn’t help that he was a communist insider connected to media censorship committees, but in this case his actions was soon to speak louder than his reputation. Wang Xiangwei, was mainland born and had previously wrote for the very pro-Beijing, ‘China Daily’, and the mentioning of this past made up the initial extent of complaints against him. But after the 2012 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, real public anger about his editorship started to formulate. Notably, when he intervened to scupper a front page story on the suspicious death of Tiananmen era dissident Li Wangyang, the SCMP stood out as the only paper not to cover the issue. When bluntly asked to explain his decision by a senior sub-editor, Xiangwei’s furious response was leaked to the media and placed the paper on the covers of newspapers around the world for all the wrong reasons.
Then out of the woodwork came a letter of protest from a recently dismissed journalist, Paul Mooney, who condemned Xiangwei and the Kwok family as censors. On the editor’s proclivity to censor his work Moodey stated, “For seven months, he had basically blocked me from writing any China stories… some two dozen suggestions went unanswered by the China Desk–in one case a story was approved, but the editor told me Wang had overruled him”. On his award winning, anti Beijing article, “silence of the dissidents”, Moodey opined “it sat on China Desk for about three months; a practice I later learned was not uncommon when Wang wanted to let a story shrink in importance”. Around the same time a second letter, signed by 23 previously employed journalists and editors; both local and foreign, was published regarding their worries about the paper’s direction and content. Xiangwei’s response to all of this and to the increasing ridicule and condemnation from local and foreign publications alike was an un-characteristically honest admission of fault in the case of Li Wangyang. Despite this, his protestations that he wasn’t a censor came off as hollow. “If I had a hidden agenda, it would have come out a long time ago”, was his most substantial response; which seems a patently unprovable statement and a poor answer to the very serious charge of media censorship. Another poor excuse from the editor was that ‘because the issue wasn’t being covered in China then the SCMP shouldn’t cover it either’. If nothing else, this was the clearest confirmation so far; that indeed the SCMP would be taking its cues from Beijing from now on.
The results of the SCMP’s content re-jigg have been clear in supporting this assumption; recent high profile articles and opinion pieces on national education, foreign affairs and local politics have all drawn a great amount of criticism and read like pure propaganda. Among the more notable instances; Tammy Tam’s pedestrian interview with the controversial ‘Panchen Lama’, Alex Lo’s angry attacks on protesting high school students and all of Eric X Li’s anti-western tirades, come to mind. It used to be that if you wanted to hear that democracy protesters didn’t deserve their rights, that the Dalai Lama was a dangerous separatists or that Hong Kong people must become more patriotic then you’d turn to the Global Times. Sadly these talking points can now be regularly found on front page and inset of the South China Morning Post.
There is currently no need for another CCP-run English language paper; China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times and People’s Daily all run significant English news departments. At the regional level there are at least a couple more papers spread throughout China too. And since all Chinese publications are required to tow the party line, it means that for the most part they are all ideologically indistinguishable.
If we exclude the South China Morning Post there are no longer any reputable middle-ground or democratic-leaning papers left in Hong Kong. This is bad for Hong Kong’s press freedoms, but it’s also detrimental for journalism as a whole as foreign correspondents and news desks disappear across the world. The South China Morning Post was an invaluable source for un-biased investigative news stories and the gap in the ‘South Asian’ news feed won’t be filled easily.