MEDIA WATCH – Exclusive: SCMP Staff Clash with Editors Over Tiananmen Censorship 15

Little Eye on SCMP

A multi-part series

For context, please refer to ‘Editor’s Note‘ below and Part 2: Op-Ed.

‘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.

South China Morning Post Editor Xang Xiangwei

SCMP editor Wang Xiangwei, the Tiananmen multimedia project and a comparison of the front covers of the Post and New York Times on 4.6.14 – the 25th anniversary of the massacre.

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.”

South China Morning Post Editors

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.

South China Morning Post coverage

A case of framing? A selection of critical news and opinion pieces related to the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.

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.

Exclusive Hong WrongWithin 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 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.

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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.

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15 thoughts on “MEDIA WATCH – Exclusive: SCMP Staff Clash with Editors Over Tiananmen Censorship

  • Tom

    Editor’s note:
    *Findings in this article were sourced only from existing staff employed by the SCMP. Important findings were confirmed by 2 or more sources.

    *If you are a staff member of the SCMP & wish to share/leak concerns, please contact the blog: from a non-SCMP email address/computer. Secure channel:

    *The blog is not a competitior of the SCMP as it does not make any money (Google Ad revenue covers hosting, most months). HongWrong wouldn’t exist without the SCMP as a source of news, so we want it to suceed. Senior editors ignored requests to repond. Please see Part 2 Op-ed:

  • Tom

    These findings are 100% solid. I am still am yet to receive any constructive criticism. Nor has there been any denial from SCMP management, who remain silent.

    re: sourcing – I used solid journalistic methods & double sourced where necessary. Any more detail would’ve endangered people’s jobs. Would you have named people? Detailing specific articles that were killed, for instance, directly endangers those who worked upon them… Think about it.

    re: doorstepping – I am continuing to reach out to senior staff members repeatedly. Over a dozen calls, emails and messages in 2 weeks. Radio silence.

    re: ‘personal motive’ – my motive is explained in part 2: I note how the Post is a much-needed institution – I use it daily as a news source and respect the quality journalism it does each day. There are widely-reported instances of editorial interference so am concerned for its future and the consequences for local democracy.

  • Paul Mooney 慕亦仁

    XXXXX, I worked for the SCMP for quite a few years, and have been a journalist for more than 30 years, and I am neither young nor inexperienced. I can tell you that stories were killed, cut and slashed for obvious political reasons, and not due to journalistic problems. Based on what I know as a person who wrote for the newspaper on and off for the past 25 years, until Wang Xiangwei forced me out of the newspaper, this analysis hits the nail right on the head. People I know who work at the SCMP, including veteran Hong Kong and Chinese journalists, have told me similar tales of woe and dissatisfaction under the newspaper’s leadership. So we’re not talking about jumping to any wrong conclusions. As you don’t work for the SCMP, you’re obviously unaware of what’s going on inside the paper. I wonder why you jump to the conclusion that this report is not valid? But maybe that’s how things are done in your small publishing company.

  • Paul Mooney 慕亦仁

    Hi Godfree, I’m not sure what you mean about “the same story”, but the censorship that goes on at the SCMP is not the same as in Baghdad, Beijing, Brussels or Biloxi. I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years and I’ve never seen the kind of censorship I experienced at the SCMP.

  • Paul Mooney 慕亦仁

    The uniqueness is that in more than 30 years as journalist, other than the SCMP, no one has ever told me to slant a story and none of my stories have been rejected for political reasons. I’m sure this goes on in some places, but it’s not the general rule. The SCMP is unique in doing this. Or maybe you can suggest some other major newspapers that control what journalists write? I maybe misunderstanding your point.

  • Tom

    On 5/7, a person employed by the SCMP Group registered an anonymous account to disparage the rigour of these findings. I agreed to avoid identifying them in a follow-up blog post as – when contacted – they led me to believe they would lose their job – instead, we agreed the comments would be removed.
    While have prevented links to this page appearing on their own comments section, constructive criticism is always welcome on the blog – especially when honestly conveyed.

  • Godfree Roberts

    The SCMP may be more direct with their interactions to journalists that most, but all publications have formal, written editorial standards and guidelines. That is, they tell their employees what they can and cannot write. In addition they have unspoken, cultural guidelines, as Chomsky notes in his book ‘Manufacturing Consent’.
    I know 4 journalists personally and always look forward to having a beer with them and hearing their stories – which are always at odds with what their employers published. Nor do I feel that my friends are qualified to publish their opinions (since framing is 90% of the art of journalism) on anything more than their very limited areas of expertise. The privatization of public information will be the undoing of the West, I’m convinced.

  • Paul Mooney 慕亦仁

    Godfree, It seems you don’t want to listen to the facts. I’ve been a journalist for 34 years, and I spend every day with journalists–I don’t rely on having an occasional beer with four journalists to back up what I’ve said. I have worked at the SCMP on and off since 1990. We’re not talking about written editorial standards and guidelines. Journalists always gripe about their editors. But we’re not talking about this here. You can believe me or not. With the SCMP, it is outright censorship. It happened to me numerous times. It’s happening now to my friends, many of whom are senior and experienced Hong Kong and Chinese journalists. It’s nothing like you’re imagining or trying to distort. And we’re not talking about publishing our own opinions. We’re talking about the inconvenient truth that embarrasses the Communist leadership that is being blatantly cut, slashed, spiked, or buried on back pages and for political reasons. I’m 64 and have worked in New York, Taipei, Hong Kong and Beijing for the past 34 years as a journalist. I’m not confused about this. Blatant interference in the news that is only worse in mainland China.

  • Paul Mooney 慕亦仁

    Hi Godfree, There are several examples in the following article: I’d add that during my last seven months with the newspaper, while I was collecting a full salary, that I was only able to get two stories into the newspaper, and one of those was about panda bears. Do any of your beer-drinking buddies have such an experience? Please feel free to post my link on your web site.

  • Godfree Roberts

    Thanks. I read the article and completely understand your feelings – and your boss’ feelings, and his publisher’s feelings. Pari passu, you would have had the same experience at News Corp because, as Hannen Swaffer said, “freedom of the press … is freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to.”

  • Paul Mooney 慕亦仁

    The one difference here Godfree, is that this is not a case of the publisher having certain views, but of distorting the news and printing lies. That’s not acceptable anywhere. Also, this is not a case of the publisher doing anything. The Communist Party is responsible for editorial policy at the SCMP.
    You need to make these things clear.