SCMP Editor Says He Didn't Downplay Dissident's Death

Wang Xiangwei, the editor in chief of the South China Morning Post, today answered criticism of his decision carry an abbreviated story on the hanging death of a Chinese dissident, saying he had never intended to downplay the story, and that he didn’t have sufficient detail when the story broke out of China to go with a more complete story.

Insiders said Wang had a 25 cm story on the details by two SCMP reporters that he declined to run, instead opting for the brief.

“I am five months into my role as Editor-in-chief and today I face a situation where my leadership and our newspaper’s integrity have been called into question,” he said in a statement to the South China Morning Post’s staff that was also sent to Asia Sentinel from his email address.

Li Wangyang died in a Hunan hospital, allegedly a suicide, although he was blind and deaf after years of mistreatment in captivity as a result of his leadership of the Tiananamen Square student protests of 1989. The death, reported widely in the Chinese language press the same day it happened has raised a furor not only in Hong Kong but in China as well, with authorities coming under strong pressure to provide answers about his death.

Asia Sentinel reported yesterday on a series of email exchanges between Wang and Alex Price, a senior sub editor at the paper, questioning the editor’s decision to “nib” or cut the story to a brief, saying the paper’s staff were “understandably concerned by this. News is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations. Please explain the decision to reduce the suspicious death of Li Wangyang to a brief. I need to be able to explain it to my friends who are asking why we did it.”

The result was a series of exchanges that Price characterized as “brusque.” Price sent the emails to several colleagues, who made them public. That in turn has caused considerable controversy in the newspaper’s newsroom, with many of the staff questioning Wang’s autocratic manner in the newsroom as well as his news judgment.

The episode has become a flashpoint inside the paper, with concern growing that Wang is pushing out western reporters and editors and replacing them, particularly in China coverage, with Chinese loyalists. The South China Morning Post has long been considered a largely objective observer of affairs in the mainland and an important window into the country for diplomats, businessmen and others, giving it an outsize importance in the region.

Thus Wang’s stewardship of what has long been regarded as one of Asia’s most influential English-language voices has raised questions not only in the newspaper business but in Hong Kong’s political community as well, given local suspicions of Chinese state dominance despite the one-country-two-systems philosophy that supposedly guarantees its independence from the mainland.

Wang backed away from his earlier pugnaciousness in his exchange with Price, saying in his statement that “This matter should have been resolved in a much more constructive way.” But, he added, “Firstly please allow me to state the facts. I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not try to downplay the Li Wangyang story.”

The short shrift for the Li story was picked up by the Chinese language press, particularly the Apple Daily, which splashed the controversy in its pages as an example of how Wang, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, was appearing to bend to Beijing’s wishes to downplay negative stories on China.

But, said Wang, the paper’s first mainland-born editor: “Despite local media insinuations, the case of the hanging of dissident Li Wangyang was reported extensively in our newspaper. Although I chose not to prioritize coverage on the first day it broke until more facts and details surrounding the circumstances of this case could be established, we subsequently splashed no less than three front pages, two leaders, plus several other prominent positions including two articles by myself.”

That didn’t wash with Mak Yinting, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, who said “I don’t think he explained his actions. He denied he had downplayed the story, when as a matter of fact you compare it with other papers the facts were well known.” The story, reduced to a brief, still carried two bylines from the reporters who wrote it, he said. “It is strange to put out a brief with two bylines, and that is an indication that they had the story. His explanations doesn’t begin to satisfy those questions.”

The South China Morning Post, Wang said, has a “huge responsibility to deliver news that continues the journalistic heritage we have inherited. I am proud of our team and believe we are able to continue to build upon this legacy of excellence together.

“Finally, as I have said on many occasions, I welcome all discussion and debate in a timely, professional and mutually respectful manner. Trusted, authoritative reporting remains our legacy, our strength and our purpose. Let’s continue to build upon that.”

Mak took exception with that as well. “By what he wrote in his email to Alex Price, that "I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do,” he didn’t explain that either.”