One of the most interesting, and politically pivotal, newspapers left on the face of the earth is the South China Morning Post. Located in southernmost China – in the special administrative district of Hong Kong – the SCMP has stood proudly as a stubborn and delightful outpost of honest, non-ideological reporting about China and the powers that be in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere on the mainland.
But since the sale and transfer of the distinguished and influential newspaper from the so-called Kuok Group/Kerry Holdings to Alibaba, the sprawling brainchild of billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma, a transaction that was completed only earlier this year, rumors have buffeted the newspaper like the occasional tropical cyclone that closes Hong Kong down in a drench. The main drift of the rumors is that the paper’s independence is shrinking and Beijing’s influence on editorial content is surging.
These rumors were not diminished by the recent departure of Chief Executive Officer Robin Hu, who returns to his native Singapore after a successful campaign to revolutionize the SCMP by converting this classical newspaper to a 24/7 digital news-outlet dervish.
The widely respected Hu will join Temasek International, part of Singapore’s state-owned company Temasek Holdings in December, though for a time he will remain a director of the SCMP board. The Post’s chairman, Joe Tsai (who is also Alibaba’s executive vice-chairman), invited Hu to stay on the board, thanked him for his leadership over the past four years and credited him with being “instrumental in driving the digital transformation of the SCMP.”
Said Tsai in a formal statement: “I want to let you know that it will be business as usual at the SCMP….. I have also had the pleasure of spending time with many of our editors and journalists in the newsroom and am extremely confident that we are in good hands under Tammy’s leadership,” he said, referring to SCMP editor-in-chief Tammy Tam. “Our global readership continues to grow because of new methods of digital distribution,” he added.
Alas, the high-profile management change had barely been announced when the newspaper was hit by a major innuendo attack on its journalistic integrity by another world-class newspaper, The Guardian, based in London. In effect the prestigious British daily accused the SCMP of abandoning its political independence by allowing itself to being manipulated by the mainland government.
Here are excerpts from The Guardian’s bitter report:
“Hong Kong’s most prestigious English-language newspaper is facing calls to explain how it obtained a controversial interview with a young Chinese activist amid fears of Beijing’s influence on the 113-year-old broadsheet.
“The calls, from activists, media experts and former and current journalists at the South China Morning Post, come after the newspaper published a story in which a 24-year-old legal assistant, who had spent nearly a year in secret detention [by mainland authorities], claimed she regretted her activism.
“Zhao Wei was seized in July 2015 at the start of a major government crackdown on human rights lawyers and was released on bail earlier this month, according to Chinese police. Within days of that reported release the South China Morning Post managed to contact her despite the fact that Zhao’s own lawyer and husband said they had been unable to do so and suspected she was still under some form of custody.
“The Guardian understands that the newspaper talked to Zhao Wei with the help of a mysterious intermediary whose identity has not been revealed to staff….
“Criticism of the South China Morning Post, or SCMP as it is widely known, comes after the newspaper was bought by one of China’s wealthiest business tycoons, the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma. Ma, a tech billionaire some call China’s Steve Jobs, brushed off concerns that the broadsheet’s editorial independence was at risk after the deal was announced last December…. But, seven months later, there is anger in the Post’s newsroom and among readers and amid claims that what was once Hong Kong’s newspaper of record has lost its way.
“That anger has been brought into relief after the publication of the mysterious interview with Zhao. Zhao was the youngest target of what activists describe as an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers in Mainland China. The interview with her was conducted by telephone on 10 July, just three days after Zhao’s release was announced…. The story did not make clear how the SCMP had managed to make contact with Zhao and activists, media experts and Zhao’s husband and lawyer suspect the interview was set up by mainland authorities and conducted against her will.
“They are demanding answers from the newspaper about the circumstances in which its reporter – who it has not named – was able to contact her.
Murong Xuecun, an outspoken Chinese novelist, wrote on Twitter: “The South China Morning Post must explain its exclusive interview with Zhao Wei.” David Bandurski, a respected Hong Kong media analyst, urged the newspaper to “come clean” about the “perplexing” episode, which he said raised “serious questions about the newspaper’s commitment to editorial independence” under Ma. The interview looked “eerily” like the kind of forced media confession that has become common since the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, took power in 2012, Bandurski added…..
A former SCMP editor, who also asked not to be named, said: “This one does smell very, very fishy.”
My own experience with the newspaper since starting a forthnightly China column June 1, 2015 (at the request of the Robin Hu management team) has been entirely apolitical. Not once was I asked to curb a criticism or an enthusiasm. The editing and editorial direction has been as objective and professional as at any of the American newspapers where I have worked. That includes the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Washington Post. I admit that my perspectives on China were generally more sympathetic to Beijing than the standard Western line, but I came in that way. I faced no pressure one way or the other. Columns that expressed skepticism or criticism of Beijing were never touched.