We like to stay out of the media-on-media mud wrestling matches that too often take the place of good criticism, especially when it is one of the Murdoch publications attempting to take the upper hand. But when the critic is the Wall Street Journal’s Hugo Restall, one of the region’s most respected editors, it behooves us all to take note.
Restall’s subject is the South China Morning Post. For those of you too young to remember, for decades the Post was basically East Asia’s English language newspaper of record. It produced stories that were as likely to be critical of Beijing as they were of Her Majesty’s government in Hong Kong. The paper was never The Times of London, but it drew its editorial inspiration from Fleet Street and did its damnedest to help all of the gweiloh make sense of an otherwise opaque city and region.
One could argue that the paper’s downhill slide began when Rupert Murdoch bought it and took it private in 1987, but I think the first chill winds probably blew through the newsroom in 1984, when Margaret Thatcher agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997. Even in those heady years between the beginning of China’s “reform and opening” and the blood-spattered summer of 1989, anyone believing that the Post’s tradition of western investigative journalism would flourish under Beijing’s gaze was probably engaging in wishful thinking.
By the late 1990s, after the Kuok family had purchased the paper (the same Kuok family of real estate tai-pans that owns the China World and Shangri-La brands), the Post’s standard of journalism had fallen so far that my friends and I were referring to the paper as Asia’s Largest Collegiate Newspaper.
While that was probably unfair to U.S. college newspapers, what kept the paper from declining into the “suitable for fish-wrap only” category was a small, elite team of journalists and editors who fought a wily rear-guard action against those who saw the paper’s duty as being a credible toady to Beijing. As with most bands of hardy guerrillas, however, the casualties mounted until there was literally one guy left: the Beijing-based Paul Mooney.
Paul is a journalist of profound integrity. Though he is old enough to have kids in college, he has expanded his craft in the digital era so that he not only writes sharp copy, he also acts as his on photographer and videographer. Working largely on his own, he has produced meticulously researched work that other journalists use as a starting point for their own stories about the dark, slimy underbelly of China’s development miracle. And lest you think I am a fanboy (he did quote me heavily in a Newsweek story about ten years ago that turned out to be very important for me), it is worth mentioning that he has at least twice won the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award, and most recently won a Society of Publishers in Asia award for his work.
The Post’s China editor, a former China Daily journalist named Wang Xiangwei, apparently spent ten months spiking every substantive piece Mooney wanted to do, and effectively canned Mooney by not renewing his contract.
The easiest response at a moment like this is outrage, but I am just sad. What was once one of the finest newspapers in Asia has now been reduced to a propaganda sheet. Asia is now, essentially, without a reliable newspaper of record, either online or off. Combined with the end of the Far Eastern Economic Review in 2009 after a prolonged, induced decline, the best coverage of Asia will have to come from media companies outside of the region – or not at all.
As for the Post itself, I would wager the Kuoks will keep it alive somehow, but we won’t be reading it.