‘Little Eye on Big Media’ Special Series: An investigation by Hong Wrong has uncovered a culture of self-censorship by reporters as well as editorial interference from senior staff at the South China Morning Post. It has also been revealed how staff resisted an attempt to scrap an acclaimed multimedia project on the Tiananmen Square massacre in the final moments before publication.
Whilst no-one at the Post was willing to speak on record, the blog interviewed several current staff members on the condition of anonymity. Journalists complained of poor morale, a high staff turnover and a rise in instances of sensitive stories being scrapped, diluted, ‘buried’ or removed – all under the leadership of Wang Xiangwei, the Post’s first mainland-born editor.
The blog learned that most articles are still published without hindrance. The degree to which a report may be distorted depends on the sensitivity of the topic, the time frame and which editors are involved. One source spoke of how some reporters writing critical pieces involving the mainland exercised an “excess of caution”, bypassing what they knew to be a better angle for fear of conflict with the management. However, the blog was also told that, in some instances, sub-editors attempt to moderate skewed stories before publication.
On other occasions, pieces that feature criticism of the local and national governments may travel back-and-forth between writers and senior editors, who will adjust how the story is framed and insist on more ‘balance’ or emphasis to highlight the authorities’ point of view. Controversial stories may be ‘buried’ deep within the print edition, or never make it past the online edition. In some cases, stories have been removed months later – without public explanation – from the website.
There was no evidence that staff were being formally instructed on what to report on, but Wang and deputy editor Tammy Tam allegedly “discourage” writers from pursuing certain stories, leading some to fear for their jobs or threaten to quit.
One project that senior staff attempted to dilute was the acclaimed ‘Voices from Tiananmen’ multimedia project. Multiple sources confirmed that the recent piece came under heavy last-minute scrutiny, following many weeks of preparation. Staff firmly opposed an attempt to ‘kill’ the feature and, after a strong show of resistance, senior editors backtracked and it was eventually published.
This week, Reuters reported on how the local China Liaison Office “regularly” calls editors and issues ‘soft warnings’. It is unclear if SCMP’s managers have been placed under any direct pressure regarding content, though some in the office suspect it.
The paper is undergoing a crisis in terms of staff retention. This year alone, there have been multiple instances of experienced reporters quitting in protest, departing through disillusionment or finding their contracts not being renewed. Some are replaced with trainee ‘cadets’ or interns whilst a middle-tier of management has been rapidly expanded under Wang. This has resulted in a tempering of decision-making power in an over-managed and bureaucratic newsroom.
Accomplished, long-term staff are overlooked in favour of external recruits who can land managerial roles with little relevant experience. Ex-Hong Kong Standard reporter Cannix Yau, whose last role was as an assistant to Jeffrey Lam in CY Leung’s cabinet, is now in charge of social and public policy coverage. The SCMP’s most recent hire was Billy Tianbo Huang who cut his teeth at China’s state-run Xinhua before moving to CNN then Singapore’s state-owned MediaCorp. Huang was arrested in Hong Kong last year for a work visa violation but, despite his limited expertise, is now editor of the Post’s China desk. In his inaugural piece on the SCMP’s Chinese website, he stated that “the advantage of China’s political system and courage of China’s leaders are obvious.”
In early 2012, Cheong Yip Seng was hired as a ‘consultant’ for the paper, originally on a three-month contract. The former editor of the Straits Times in Singapore continues to guide Xiangwei today in a powerful advisory role. In an interview about his book ‘OB Marker’ (a reference to Singapore’s censorship laws), he speaks of the necessity of censorship and “the need to strike a balance between the needs of our readers and the needs of our policy makers.” (2:15).
The Asia Sentinel reported recently that the staff remaining at the paper are “demoralised” as it suffers a self-inflicted calamity and a “confused policy direction” on local and China news coverage. Hong Wrong was told that those manning the China desk are under the most pressure and that morale “has never been worse”. Reporters are frequently encouraged to seek out interviews and quotes from officials with such ‘scoops’ celebrated as ‘exclusive’ original content. Responses from establishment figures can be given uncritical front-page prominence, even if the source is anonymous and their role unspecified. And a politician’s comments may be reported upon, then backed up with an op-ed by the very same politician on the same day.
These trends have been most noticeable in the paper’s coverage of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement, where figures seeking a democratic system in-line with international norms are labelled ‘radicals’. The group’s proposed ‘sit-in’ for universal suffrage has attracted a flood of critical articles and opinion pieces.
Within recent reports on the movement, claims made by officials have been summarised but not investigated for accuracy. ‘He said/She said’ reporting trends have arisen alongside a journalistic failure to probe official statements for truth. On dozens of occasions, entire – often front page – stories have been worked up directly from quotes provided to the state-run Global Times. And recently, the full text of Beijing’s controversial ‘White Paper’ on Hong Kong was pasted directly from Xinhua to scmp.com where it remained, as the main headline, for over 5 hours before any story, commentary or analysis was posted.
Though readers often comment on the quality of the newspaper’s content on local forums, journalists at other local outlets are reluctant to openly criticise the Post for fear of damaging their own employability in the city. However, some international entities such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Al-Jazeera, have reported on concerns of self-censorship. Al-Jazeera made reference to the SCMP in a recent 101 East documentary below…
Under the direction of Wang Xiangwei, who is a former member of the CPPCC – China’s top advisory body, the South China Morning Post risks losing the trust of its readers. Yet, as a much-needed Hong Kong institution, it is also missing a golden opportunity. Continue to Part 2: Op-ed here. Part 3 coming soon.
Despite repeated efforts to reach out, none of the SCMP’s senior staff, editor or management had any comment to share on the issues raised.