Another Editor for Hong Kong?

The revolving-door post of editor of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's main English-language newspaper and one of the most influential in the region, may be about to revolve again. That at least is the speculation and it may be reflected in the contents of the paper.

Many readers have been surprised at the extent of the newspaper's coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and of the candlelight vigil held in Hong Kong to mark the occasion. The volume and tone of the coverage was viewed as surprising given the growing trend of the SCMP to downplay such sensitive topics and generally to show itself to be "patriotic" by focusing on the triumphant aspects of contemporary China and play down the unpleasant bits. All of which suggests to some theorists that a power vacuum has developed at the top and section editors are running with the stories they want rather than the politically correct ones.

The SCMP has always been an establishment newspaper, particularly in its coverage of the local business elite, but since C.K Lau became editor two and a half years ago, it is has been viewed by newspaper analysts as being more circumspect than ever on political as well as business topics. Its business coverage has also been particularly poor as there is no business editor but the section comes under deputy editor Wang Xiangwei, who writes well on Beijing politics but is not noted for his grasp of local business. It also lost its star business columnist, retired stockbroker Jake Van der Kamp.

The SCMP's owners, the Kuok Group, which acquired it from Rupert Murdoch in 1993, have long been torn between wanting to improve it as a newspaper and doing what Beijing and the local establishment want. The result: repeated dissatisfaction with the newest appointment and an almost-immediate hunt for a replacement. just how fast the door revolves is illustrated by the experience of one top-level editor, no longer with the paper, who said that in his eight years there, he had served under six different editorial regimes involving nine different people who considered themselves in charge. Lau is considered to have set a minor record by remaining in the post for more than two years.

Lau got the job when American Mark Clifford was bundled out in April 2007 after just one year having antagonized almost the whole staff with his high-handed, bad-tempered behavior. He in turn had been brought in to replace a bizarre situation which had ruled since Australian David Armstrong had been dispatched to look after the SCMP's interest in the Bangkok Post while maintaining a oversight job as editor in chief in Hong Kong. Day to day running was in the hands of inexperienced deputy editor Fanny Fung, and the aforementioned Lau as executive editor. The news editor was a former government official who has now returned to the government. A single, experienced, hands-on editor was clearly needed. But Clifford proved a bad choice

A competent but pliable product of the Murdoch stable, Armstrong had been editor from 1994 to 1996. He had been has been brought back by the Kuoks after a previous stint as editor following a failure with an Indian, Thomas Abraham, who was seen as likable and intelligent but insufficiently experienced either with newspaper management or the politics of Hong Kong media ownership. He survived only two years after being brought in to replace Robert Keatley, a former editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal and himself viewed as a venerable stop-gap who did two years before retiring. He had succeeded the well-known British editor and author Jonathan Fenby.

The betting now is that after alternating between experienced but very foreign white men and mediocre Asians, the Kuoks are now looking for an Asian face with strong credentials from the west. There are of course quite a lot of these to chose from but finding the right balance between journalistic professionalism and the expectations of Beijing and the local establishment is not easy. But one name has been raised: a Singaporean with many years experience in Asia and the US, with a major US group. If he does get the job, can he keep the Kuoks happy while resisting a gradual descent of the SCMP to the standards of the Lee Kuan Yew school of journalism? It will not be easy but there is a chance that the decline of the past five years can be reversed.

The Kuoks meanwhile are struggling with the fact that they have no particular affinity with newspapers. Patriarch 85-year-old Robert Kuok Hock Nien is assumed to have bought it more as a favor to Beijing to keep it in safe hands. The family reportedly have been wanting to sell but given the pressure on profits from the impact of recession, the impact of the internet and free newspapers on classified advertising and the political baggage of ownership a good price looks unlikely to be offered.

The Kuok family member driving decisions now is 31-year old Kuok Hui Kwong, the youngest of Robert Kuok's eight children, who took over from an older offspring, Kuok Koon Ean, 59. She was briefly an investment banker after graduating from Harvard. Kuok Koon Ean was viewed as intelligent but indecisive and more at home with the Kuoks' hotel and property businesses (mainly Shangri-la Hotels and Kerry Properties) than this awkward but rather public media outlet.