The South China Morning Post: Onward and Downward

Newspapers are a bit like banks. Customer inertia is their first and last defence. Switching accounts from one bank to another is a tedious business with uncertain rewards once the deed is finally accomplished. It takes a lot of provocation to get rid of customers.

From a practical point of view, switching newspapers should be much easier, except the alternatives do not always appear attractive and readers, whatever their grumbles, get attached to the familiar; hence the outrage at changes of layout, fonts, or the relocation of favourite features.

But there are loyalty limits, even if the boundaries are unclear. It remains to be seen what will be the impact of the recent, abrupt dismissal, allegedly on cost grounds, of Keung Kwok-yuen as chief executive editor of Hong Kong daily Ming Pao. The controversy led on 24 April to several columnists submitting blank columns by way of protest.

Similarly, but on a grander scale, there has been a change at the South China Morning Post (SCMP), recently acquired by Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba.

Concerns in Hong Kong about perceived media self-censorship and what has been usefully termed ‘mainlandisation’ have sharpened focus on the changes at both publications.

The SCMP, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper has been around since 1903 and passed through many hands, among them Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation.

In some respects the SCMP, customarily perceived as Hong Kong’s premier English language newspaper, is akin to an old piece of furniture in the corner of a room. It is taken for granted, treated with varying degrees of respect but generally judged to be useful on those rare occasions its utility is questioned.

However, the need for a reappraisal of the role and value of the SCMP was prompted by the front page of the newspaper on 21 April, which led with an interview with Jack Ma, supported by a picture, discussing his views on the Chinese economy. Interesting and insightful, possibly. A piece of analysis, yes. A news item, not at all. At minimum, it called into question the judgment of editor Tammy Tam.

The following day, another and more modest piece appeared on the front page. It began with a question many have asked: ‘Just why does Jack Ma want to own a newspaper, and what will he do with it?’ The answer was developed in a full page Q&A interview on page four of the main news section. It was not reassuring.

Before composing a commentary on the new proprietor’s plans I conducted a (small) survey. Full disclosure: no professional pollster would endorse the methodology or the size of the sample but I can give an absolute assurance the results are untainted by practices once common at some British newspapers, hacked telephone calls and fabricated interviews. This is a summary of the results:

Overall opinions
Long-term readers – up to 20 years – recall a relatively high quality newspaper with good local and international coverage written in decent English. A recent high point in the judgment of one respondent was the 2013 interview with Edward Snowden. There is a general perception of accelerating decline. But, no choice but to read, said one.

Likes

  • Still tends to be investigative and healthily sceptical of local government.
  • Continues to be seen as a useful source of local news.
  • The letters page is enjoyed by some, even if or perhaps because the views expressed occasionally appear strange.
  • Individual columnists judged a good read were Jason Wordie, Jake Van Der Kamp and the less frequently published Philip Bowring.

Dislikes

  • The perceived poor quality of English now prevailing, poor subbing, low grade reporting and the dependence on outside sources were all mentioned.
  • The online service was judged extremely poor.
  • Placement of international news in the back pages not appreciated.
  • Overall, the SCMP is now thought to be ‘thin’, attributed to a possible holding back by advertisers as they await the impact of changes made by the new proprietor.
  • The Sunday magazine judged hopeless.
  • The loss of TV listings and the Sunday Post science page was regretted.
  • The quantity and quality of China coverage was not admired with one respondent describing it as Chinese propaganda for which he is being asked to pay.

Responding to a question about his vision for the SCMP, Jack Ma said he wished to create a global media outlet, employing Alibaba’s technology and resources, to act as a connector between East and West, reporting more accurately than other media on Asia and China. An ambitious goal for a successful businessman. One wishes him success.

On the management and direction of the newspaper the picture was less clear. He said he intended to focus on the business side of the SCMP and not interfere with the editorial staff. However, he did say he might give feedback on how to improve readers’ experience, a vague and potentially vast get-out clause.

Further, he said reporting should be ‘impartial, not one-sided, objective and reasonable’. This jumble of words collectively makes little sense. Above all, ‘impartial’ stands out.

Impartial judgments are vital in a court of law when determining facts. News is mostly about values. You cannot be impartial about the rule of law, or democracy, or ask the Pope to be impartial about abortion. Nor can you ask a Muslim to be impartial about evidence for the existence of God.

Hong Kong’s values as set out in the Basic Law include the freedom of speech and the rule of law. Neither is much admired or practised in China; so the application of Hong Kong values and editorial independence in the SCMP coverage of China remains unclear. But many will guess at the answer.

So, onward and downward the SCMP will go and loyalty limits may be breached but as Margaret Thatcher once infamously said, ‘there is no alternative’ – for the moment.

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