‘Little Eye on Big Media’ Special Series: [Part 2: Op-ed, click here for part 1] There is no other newspaper on Earth better positioned than the South China Morning Post to provide coverage of this century’s most important story – China’s rapid rise. Historically, the Post has been the ‘newspaper of record’ for Hong Kong and is better placed than anyone else to observe and analyse Beijing’s growing power and influence. It has over 110 years of experience, is located in the one corner of China that does not restrict the press, and has a newsroom full of multi-lingual journalistic talent to call upon.
The newspaper has, rightly, bagged many awards for excellence in reporting but, like any other media group, has certain pressure points. Critically, for the SCMP – its weakness is often China. The SCMP’s Malaysian owners have extensive business interests across the mainland and stakes in Yurun Food Group, Shangri-la Hotels, Kerry Properties and several transport companies. This, alongside suspicions of direct – or indirect – pressure from Beijing and ambitions to expand across the border, has led to a well-documented watering-down of its criticism of China.
Whilst superb critiques of mainland affairs are still printed every week, any irregularities are alarming as Hong Kong has dropped 27 places since 2010 to 61st on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. It sits at 74th on the Freedom House ranking, now deemed ‘partly free’, behind Mali. Earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists produced a special report this year on Hong Kong’s “cancerous” spate of self-censorship, making reference to the SCMP. Amidst violent attacks, cyber attacks, boycotts and threats, we may be left with only the Apple Daily, a tabloid, as the last paper willing to scrutinise Beijing.
But the SCMP has a choice and, perhaps, a golden business opportunity. It could leverage the talent, reputation and unique place it has in China to position itself as the ‘go-to’ international news wire for trusted news from the mainland. Instead of relying upon state-run news agencies, media organisations around the world could subscribe to SCMP’s dependable news feed, paying a premium for independent reporting, free from interference.
Depending, instead, upon mainland expansion to maintain profitability may be may be counter-productive if it affects content. Earlier this year, Jimmy Lai, who owns the Apple Daily, said that such moves rarely pay dividends in the media sector: “I really can’t think of one pro-China media owner in Hong Kong who has really benefited by trying to please China. They think they can play a game with the Communists, but that is not how it works. Once they get you, they own you.”
When left alone, journalism at the Post is top-notch. The online team – less susceptible to the politics of the print edition – led with superb coverage of the July 1st march this week. Meanwhile, the glowing response and number of re-shares that the Tiananmen multimedia project received should send a message that there is an appetite for innovative, high quality accounts of mainland issues. Yet, it was only because the brave reporters involved presented a united front against management that it was ever allowed to be published.
For current staff to confront editors is particularly bold – most fear speaking up. In 2012, following a controversy surrounding the coverage of the death of mainland activist Li Wangyang, 23 ex-staff members wrote a letter of concern to the SCMP’s Executive Director, Hui Kuok.
Should the SCMP now choose to continue down the road of self-censorship and irrelevance, with staff retention and morale in turmoil, then there will be dire consequences for local democracy and, inevitably, the company’s share price.
Money aside, there is a less tangible asset that the Post risks losing. Despite long-running grumblings on local forums and comment sections about the paper’s ‘decline’, its reputation remains mostly intact for now, especially abroad. Trust is an important value to any news organisation, and it is something that the SCMP has earned over many decades. Trust is why it can quote a ‘government source’ or anonymous official – readers take a leap of faith as they believe reporters and editors to be acting properly. People turn to a title such as the SCMP – instead of say, the China Daily – because they have confidence in its journalistic standards and believe it will shine a light in dark places.
When the trust of its readership wanes, it is difficult to regain. Doubts may be triggered when the paper headlines with quotes from those anonymous officials. Suspicions will be roused when it prints an inflammatory editorial under an anonymous ‘staff reporter’ byline. Paranoia may set in as readers wonder whether stories have been interfered with or diluted. If it is being widely reported that your newspaper self-censors, your audience will start questioning all of your content.
No free press; no democracy
Unlike in the mainland, there is no top-down censorship in Hong Kong and freedom of speech is protected under Article 27 of the Basic Law. If Hong Kong is to have a discussion about democracy, it needs to also address its recent, widely reported decline in press freedom. Without journalistic freedom and a means to keep the city’s powerful accountable, democracy will be dead on arrival. Part 3 coming soon.