No Joking Please, We’re Journalists

In an unprecedented action, an estimated 80-plus newsroom staffers – male, female, Chinese and western alike – have signed what amounts to a no-confidence vote in Mark Clifford, the editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s largest English language newspaper, after he fired two senior editors for their small roles in a mock front page farewell gift for another editor whom Clifford had fired.

The incident, which began as a traditional office ritual for a departing employee, has uncovered a sharp divide in the newsroom of one of Asia’s oldest newspapers, essentially pitting a new chief editor against many of the paper’s long-time employees.

“Leaving pages” as British-oriented journalists call them, are a tradition in western journalism across the globe, typically a gentle satiric poke full of inside jokes delivered at the exiting employee’s expense during a farewell office party.

In the case of former Sunday Morning Post editor Niall Fraser, a Scotsman given to the kind of colorful language common in many newsrooms, it was the headline “You’re a c**t, but you’re a good c**t” (written with the asterisks intact on the mock page) that drew Clifford’s wrath when he happened upon a copy of the fake page in the SCMP newsroom following Fraser’s departure.

“Clifford took great exception to the use of the language,’’ said one of five SCMP employees who agreed to talk anonymously about the incident. “He went on a witch hunt, and looked at the page’s history [on the SCMP computer system] and called in every single person who had touched the page, about 10, and with the head of Human Resources sitting beside him, told them that it was totally offensive to the women in the office and would not be tolerated.

“He actually said: ‘It’s not something that you would show to your mother.’ Of course it’s not. He totally missed the point. And at that point everyone was mostly bemused, thinking ‘what a clown.’”

After sacking the two employees on Friday for their role in the mock page, Clifford sent an email to the editorial staff which provoked “fury”, according to a source and led directly to the petition, which will be sent to the Post’s owners.

“If we at the South China Morning Post are to keep society's trust, to keep our reader's belief in our quality and integrity, we must ensure that what we do meets those expectations. We must strive for excellence in everything we do in our professional lives, both inside and outside of the news room every phone call, every photo, every press conference and, yes, everything we do internally,” Clifford wrote in the email.

Clifford referred questions and comments on the matter to Irene Ho, assistant marketing director for the SCMP. “The Post's position is that [Ruffini and Willison] violated the work ethic,” Ho said. She called Clifford's sackings and his office-wide e-mail “a careful decision for the benefit of the staff and to reinforce the purpose of the work ethic.”

As of Monday morning Ho had not seen the petition and she said she did not know if Clifford had seen it. “I am not sure if Mark will respond further,” she said.

Clifford, an American, has been at the helm of the Post for seven months after his departure from the Standard, Hong Kong’s second remaining English language daily, where he served as editor and publisher for two years. Prior to that he was Business Week’s Asia editor and also worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review. The Standard was his first job in a newspaper.

The irony in what has become a bitter row over a newsroom joke was that Clifford was powerless to lecture anyone who had written the page, which also contained jibes such as a mock ad for the “Amazing Fraser-Fone: Buy It and Lose It!” and a reference to a non-existent story “Why Alcohol and Scotsmen Don’t Mix,” as the page was written by old friends and co-workers of Fraser who were no longer at the SCMP.

Clifford finally acted on his outrage after a month had passed and most employees had likely forgotten about the incident. Around noon last Friday three employees were summarily dismissed for their part in the page: designer/artist Carl Bell-Jones, and two of Fraser’s top Sunday copy editors, long-time Hong Kong journalists Trevor Willison and Paul Ruffini.

According to two SCMP employees, Bell-Jones’ job was saved after veteran sports editor Noel Prentice stormed into Clifford’s office essentially saying, if you sack him, you sack me. Clifford reportedly backed down and a warning letter was issued to Bell-Jones.

“At the time, no one spoke up for Trevor and Paul,’’ another SCMP staffer said. “We were all in shock. What followed was disbelief. People were saying, ‘Is he mad? Doesn’t he get a joke?’ Then he sent out an e-mail that provoked absolute fury in newsroom’’

“The South China Morning Post name is one of our most valuable assets. Thousands of people have worked to build one of Asia's most prominent and powerful newspapers over the past century. The name symbolizes quality, trust and integrity. We are a good newspaper on our way to becoming a great one,” Clifford wrote.

“Unfortunately, not everyone understands what it takes for us to ratchet up to the next level. Some of this I understand. Change is hard. Newsrooms are conducive to grumbling. And excellence takes effort.

“But some behavior I cannot accept and will not tolerate. There is no room here for people who flout journalistic ethics of fairness and accuracy, no room for people who treat the company's name and property as if it were their own. And there are basic standards of decency that need to be respected in any modern company, standards that are enshrined in our code of ethics.”

One long-time staffer with more than 10 years of experience with the SCMP called Clifford’s e-mail “insulting” and “disgusting.”

The feelings were obviously shared by many newsroom employees and what resulted was blowback in the form of a restrained petition to SCMP chairman Kuok Khoon Ean, with a cc to Clifford, asking for Willison and Ruffini to be reinstated.

It was quickly written and circulated over the weekend with delivery scheduled for Monday. As of Sunday, between 65 and 80 staffers reportedly signed the letter as it took on “a life of its own,’’ the staffer said. “It’s unprecedented. I’ve seen the Post through different eras, many sackings but I’ve not seen anything like this.”

Dated November 10, 2006, it reads: “We, the undersigned, object strongly to the decision to sack Trevor Willison and Paul Ruffini, on the grounds of their involvement in Niall Fraser's leaving page.’’

“We personally and collectively strive for the excellence and professional integrity of the SCMP's products and brands. However, we believe that the sacking of high quality journalists is against the interest of the South China Morning Post and that any involvement in the leaving page does not have anything to do with their work for the paper and is not a sackable offence.

“We believe that more harm has been done to the core values of the SCMP by their dismissal without reference to our established code of verbal or written misconduct warnings.

“We would like the chairman to know that the action today has severely damaged morale of the staff. We call for their immediate reinstatement.”

“For Clifford to take the moral high ground and to treat us like children is really insulting,” said a staffer. “It’s the nature of leaving pages. They are simply a good-humored prank which goes on in any [journalism] office environment and it’s ridiculous to take a moral stand on something like a leaving page.”

Clifford, who resigned from The Standard in February 2006, has been an object of controversy since his arrival. Long-time SCMP staffers said that some “Clifford loyalists” brought into the paper were at odds with the SCMP’s existing newsroom environment and created what another staffer called “a divided culture” at the paper.

“The new people don’t mix with the old people and now there is a very divided culture within the Post between his people and the rest,” another long-time employee said. “It’s become a very unpleasant place to work where real professionalism and journalism isn’t understood and promoted. These people who were sacked are characters. Journalism needs characters and he doesn’t understand the character element of journalism. His words about the need for change and standards are really very empty. I don’t he think he understands what they really mean.” Asia Sentinel Editor John Berthelsen and Senior Editor A. Lin Neumann, were Managing Editor and Executive Editor of the Standard, respectively, during Clifford’s tenure.