South China Morning Post Editor Departs

After a tumultuous year that brought chaos to the newsroom of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Asia's biggest English language daily, Mark L. Clifford is stepping down as editor with the announcement Monday that he is leaving to join the Asia Business Council.

Despite a laudatory farewell message from Kuok Khoon Ean, the chairman of the South China Morning Post Group, that Clifford “played a key role in changes that have both strengthened and improved the editorial operations” of the paper, his departure was widely expected after a series of confrontations and gaffes that turned the paper’s staff solidly against him.

Left unanswered in the departure of Clifford is why there has been continuing turmoil at the top at the Post. He is the fifth editor in a decade to try and manage the apparently unruly — but consistently profitable— paper.

Clifford got off on the wrong foot almost immediately when he fired Robert Mountfort, the paper’s photo editor, for making a mild joke in an editor’s meeting about the Kuok family, the majority owners of the paper. But his most controversial action was in November, when he fired two senior editors for producing an in-house spoof front page for former Sunday Morning Post editor Niall Fraser, whose job he had eliminated earlier.

In an unprecedented action, an estimated 100 newsroom staffers signed what amounted to a no-confidence vote over the incident, asking that the two editors be reinstated. The incident drew unwelcome publicity to the Post as it was publicized in newspapers, websites and blogs worldwide. As the months went on, his support continued to dwindle.

“Leaving pages” 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. It was the headline “You’re a c**t, but you’re a good c**t” (written with the asterisks intact) that drew Clifford’s wrath when he happened upon a copy of the fake page in the SCMP newsroom following Fraser’s departure.

Ultimately the joke spread across Hong Kong, with the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, the city’s venerable journalists’ organization, putting out a copy of its own magazine, “The Correspondent,” with the title “The C***********t.”

Despite the staff revolt, Clifford stood firm on his decision, telling protesting staff members that his “high standards of decency” had been made “quite clear’’ when he joined the paper. Clifford had called the Fraser page ‘’something you would not want to show your mother.’’

On Clifford’s own departure, the most prevalent message in a newsroom that has been expecting his exit for months was that he had been “sacked for being a c***.” Others asked who was doing the leaving page for Clifford.

It became clear that Clifford’s days were numbered in December with the forced resignation of the business editor, Stuart Jackson, who was handpicked by Clifford to overhaul the paper’s business coverage. Jackson had only been in the job for seven months when he tendered his surprise resignation – while on vacation.

Although the reason for Jackson’s departure was laid to the misidentification of a photograph, the move was interpreted by insiders as a reaction by the paper's board of directors to the November employee revolt. Shortly after Jackson’s departure, the photographer who had taken the offending picture, and been promptly fired for it by Clifford, was reinstated by the paper.

As news of the editor’s departure spread, emails almost immediately began flying from former employees celebrating the action, including many from employees of The Standard, where Clifford had been editor and publisher for two years before leaving abruptly to join the Post. Prior to joining the Standard, he had been Asia editor for Business Week.

Clifford’s tenure at the Post began in controversy over his firing of the Standard’s managing editor and executive editor on the day he announced his departure. Jackson was also a senior editor at the Standard.

“I’ll bet there will be dancing in the streets,” said one email from a former Standard employee in New Zealand. “It’s nice to see what comes around goes around and comes around again,” said another.

In his announcement of Clifford’s departure, Kuok praised Clifford as “the driving force behind the SCMP's forthcoming re-design. He has contributed in the convergence of the print and digital efforts of the SCMP and overhauled the paper's training program for our journalists.”

C.K Lau, who was promoted to managing editor recently with the departure of two more senior editors, is to take over editorial duties.

The Asia Business Council, an association of chief executive officers from Asian corporations with significant Asian operations, issued a near-simultaneous press release Monday.

“I am delighted to be joining the Council and building on the solid foundation that (former executive director) Ruth Shapiro has laid since the organization was founded five years ago. The council's extraordinary membership and its expanding base of research give it a unique opportunity to help set the agenda for Asia. I look forward to working with council members to realize this potential," Clifford said in the press release.

Asia Sentinel’s editor, John Berthelsen, and executive editor, A. Lin Neumann, worked with Clifford at The Standard in Hong Kong.

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