The Cultural Gap in Hong Kong Journalism

Here is some background: upon belief, about 5% of the Hong Kong population is English-only, while the rest is Chinese-only or bilingual (to indeterminate extent).  I'm using the term "to indeterminate extent" because I have been quizzing people that I encounter at random in real life about their command of the English language with respect to their formal academic achievements -- with due respect, formal achievements meant nothing.  

However, the influence on the general situation of Hong Kong (with respect to the economy, for example) of the English-only population is vastly disproportionate to its absolute size.  This should not shocking given the history of Hong Kong as a British colony even though its people has later converted to universal-suffrage democracy.  That influence of the English-only population is determined by media voice, and that has been recently affected as follows:

On November 11, 2006, the following item appeared in Apple Daily  This is the 李八方 column.

[in translation]

There was an earthquake yesterday at the South China Morning Post.  Two Sunday Morning Post senior managers -- chief articles editor Trevor Wilson and articles editor Paul Ruffini -- were dismissed.  Some veteran workers were unhappy and the word is that they have signed a letter of petition to the SCMP chairman Kuok Khoon Ean to ask him to render justice for two good senior managers.

It has been quite stormy over at SCMP recently.  Last month, the Sunday Morning Post chief editor Niall Fraser resigned, and now it is the turn for two more colleagues to leave.

I heard that there was a tradition over at SCMP to present a farewell article on the front page for any colleagues who are leaving.  Usually, the accompanying article is sarcastic or cute, including cartoon drawings.  This is typical English humor, and it was no exception for Niall Fraser.  

I remembered that when Willy Lam left, the same thing happened and it was a lot of fun.  But this time things went awry.  The chief editor Mark Clifford was incensed that he was not consulted about putting Niall's departure on the front page.  Trevor and Paul were the instigators, but I don't know if their dismissal was related to this matter.  Yesterday Mark sent out an email to the colleagues to tell them the front page of the newspapers is not intended for fun and games!  The inside story at SCMP is that Mark and Niall did not get along.  I put in a call to SCMP to confirm, but nobody has called back yet by our deadline.

The Apple Daily article may be misleading about what actually transpired.  Here is the version in Ming Pao

[in partial translation]

SCMP has a tradition that whenever a colleague leaves, they will write a farewell article in the form of a news report and get it printed like a "SCMP" newspaper front page as a souvenir.  Please note that this does not mean that the farewell article is printed in the mass distribution copy.  Only a mock-up of the front page is printed.  This sort of behavior is fairly typical in the industry.  Perhaps the 'news report' invoked the name of the new chief editor, someone was enraged, went through an internal investigation and dismissed the two 'authors' immediately.  Yesterday Mark Clifford sent out an email to SCMP employees to hint that the actions of certain colleagues affect the image of SCMP negatively and must not be tolerated.  Yesterday, Ming Pao attempted to confirm the affair with Mark Clifford, but the SCMP spokesperson responded that there will be no comment about whether employees were dismissed for violating the business code of conduct. 

For the glorious details, please readHong Kong: SCMP senior editors sacked  Mister Bijou (note: PLEASE READ THE COMMENTS!!!); No Joking Please, Were Journalists  Justin Mitchell, Asia Sentinel; UPDATE: Standoff at the South China Morning Post  Justin Mitchell, Asia Sentinel; Hong Kong subs sacked over c**t leaving page  Dominic Pensfold, UK Press Gazette; Clash of civilizations at Hong Kong newspaper Patrick Smith, International Herald Tribune.

This case illustrates three cultural divides in the Hong Kong media industry.

FIRST, there is a huge cultural gap between Chinese-language and English-language media in Hong Kong.  In the English-language media, there is a tradition of a 'leaving page.'  From the presentation in the Apple Daily, the writer seemed unable to explain the notion of 'leaving page' and left the readers with the impression that an offensive article had appeared on the front page of the published newspaper.  The Ming Pao report was relatively more accurate but not explicit enough.  The lack of clarity was due to the fact that the communication with Apple Daily/Ming Pao came probably via informal gossip between the Chinese reporters at South China Morning Post with the reporters over at Apple Daily/Ming Pao.  In spite of the ostensible competition among the newspapers in the marketplace, the informal ties among the individual reporters at different publications are actually astonishingly strong.  But somehow the notion of the "leaving page" was not communicated clearly in the Chinese-language coverage.

SECONDLY, there is apparently a sharp divide between the UK/Australia-based rough-and-tumble journalists and the US-based always-politically-correct/Puritan journalists.  The issue was over a mock-up front page that the general public never ever saw.  

On one hand, the perpetrators said that the text was written by people who have long departed and set to print by a couple of Aussie/Brit editors in accordance to a grand tradition.  On the other hand, the American senior managers conducted a witch-hunt and shit-canned those editors.  This was therefore a cultural clash in the classical sense.

THIRDLY, there is that eternal gap of coverage created by language.  The facts are these -- 5% of the Hong Kong population is English-only; the rest are bilingual theoretically (more or less) or Chinese-only.  This is a fact of life, and you cannot bullshit (*pardon my language*) your way around it.  Thus, some things can only appear in one language effectively due to the cultural assumptions and contexts.

Can we imagine the pressure for the reporters at the English-language media (either South China Morning Post or The Standard)?  The reporters shall be either English-only or bilingual.  If you are an English-only reporter, you are limited to only interviewing English speakers or else you have to bring along a junior-level interpreter/intern.  You get terribly frustrated when you ask a question, your interpreter repeats the question in Chinese supposedly, the subject responds with a 5-minute statement and then your interpreter tells you, "He said YES."  Duuuhhh!