Hong Kong Newspaper Drama Continues

A senior South China Morning Post editor fired in the early months of editor-in-chief Mark Clifford's tenure at Hong Kong largest English Language newspaper has lost a case brought in Hong Kong's labor tribunal.

Robert Mountfort, who had been the Post’s photo editor until he was dismissed by Clifford in June 2006, alleged he was fired without cause after he made a wisecrack in a meeting about the Kuok family, which owns the paper.

He had also questioned Clifford's personnel policies at the Standard, where he had been editor in chief before moving to the Post.

Clifford did not return a call for comment and Post spokeswoman Amanda Turnbull said she could not comment on legal matters concerning the newspaper.

She called actions such as Mountfort’s “unfortunate but not entirely unusual."

Mountfort filed suit in the Hong Kong Labour Tribunal asking to be reinstated and given back wages. A judge adjourned the case without setting a date for further action, but ruled that Mountfort could take the case to a higher court if he chooses.

The Post, the Tribunal ruled last week, had acted in accordance with the law in its dismissal of Mountfort. Appeals by fired employees are notoriously hard to win in Hong Kong's labor courts.

Mountfort, who represented himself, said in his statement to the Tribunal that he made a slightly veiled joke regarding the paper’s ownership at a story conference in which the editor of the Life section described an upcoming story — headlined “Scions of the Times” —about how second-generation Hong Kong executives were shaking up traditional family-run businesses in the city.

In his statement, Mountfort said he asked whether or not the Post had a good “case study” for the story, referring to the Kuok family, which has owned the paper since tycoon Robert Kuok’s Kerry Media bought a controlling interest from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 1993. His son, Kuok Khoon Ean became chairman in 1997.

“Some people laughed,” Mountfort told the Tribunal. “Mr. Clifford said that he was tired of my comments and upset about the ‘us vs. them’ attitude many staff had about the Post's owners.

“On … the 8th of June Mr. Clifford called me to his office. He told me that comments like the one I had made earlier that week in conference were unacceptable, that it was behavior inconsistent with my position as a senior member of staff and that if I wished to continue working at the (Post) I had better rectify my bad attitude.

“I told Mr. Clifford that my comment was an attempt at humor and that despite my character flaws I was a professional and would continue to work as one at the Post.

“On the 12th of June I was summoned to Mark Clifford's office. He simply told me that ‘unsolicited’ he had heard that I had said ‘some things’ which were unacceptable and that there was no longer a job for me at the Post.”

Mountfort said he wanted to face his accusers in order to defend himself.

In response, Clifford filed a statement of his own on January 8, 2007 in which he claimed that Mountfort “did not agree to (sic) the current newspaper style and direction and refused to work in accordance with the same.”

Clifford also stated that Mountfort told him that “almost immediately after (Mountfort) was hired (the Post) had moved away from the more portrait oriented approach that he favored. I … noted (Mountfort’s) unhappiness with the design and direction of the newspaper and the same was clouding his ability to serve as Photo Editor.”

“I have no idea what he is talking about,” Mountfort said of Clifford’s comment in an interview. “I don’t even know what ‘portrait oriented approach’ is supposed to mean. If I was supposedly so unhappy since being hired in 2002 why was I still there in 2006 when Clifford came?”

Mountfort, who says he was an early supporter of Clifford when he came to the paper, has not decided whether to appeal the decision.

Clifford has become controversial as a result of a handful of high-profile firings. In November he sacked two long-term employees over an off-color gag front page given as a gift to a fired colleague. That incident provoked a revolt in which more than 100 – approximately half – of the Post’s editorial employees demanded that their fired colleagues be reinstated.

A short while later, Clifford’s handpicked Business Editor, Stuart Jackson suddenly resigned for “personal reasons” in a move that was seen as a sharp rebuke to Clifford and was interpreted as a reaction by the Post's board of directors to the employee revolt over the leaving page firings.

Late last month two other senior staffers— Post Editor Fanny Fung and Managing Editor Pauline Loong — abruptly resigned, another example of the continuing turmoil at the paper. Their resignations were announced by Chairman Kuok Khoon Ean, despite the fact that they both reported directly to Clifford. And Tuesday Gracia Wong, a 19-year veteran SCMP librarian, was notified that she had been fired nine months short of her 20-year pension payout as a “mandatory redundancy with immediate effect.”

Post spokesperson Turnbull described staff morale at the paper as “fine” and said that the company had begun a series of new methods to improve in-house communications, including “town hall meetings” where staffers could air their feelings.