UPDATE: Standoff at the South China Morning Post

What began as the sacking of two long-term employees over a gag front page given as a gift to a fired colleague at Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post has become a standoff between a seemingly unpopular chief editor and more than 100 – approximately half – of his editorial employees who have taken formal exception to his actions.

On Tuesday the Post’s editor-in-chief Mark Clifford met with about 20 section heads of the divided paper to discuss the firings in an atmosphere that was described by one source as “distinctly chilly’’. In the meeting Clifford gave little ground over the firings or what he called his “ethical standards” at the paper, sources said.

Those standards led Clifford, an American who has been in the job just seven months, last Friday to summarily dismiss two senior copy editors for their minor role in putting together a mock front page intended as a gag gift for another employee whom Clifford had fired.

In response 101 staffers signed a petition asking the paper's chairman, Kuok Khoon Ean, to reinstate the two editors.

Numerous Post staffers say that while morale at the paper is low after the sackings, there is an unusual degree of unity behind the petition, which was signed by many Chinese staff as well as westerners.

“A surprising number of the more ‘timid’ local reporters have signed that petition,” said one Chinese staffer. “Certainly there doesn't seem to be the usual divide (between westerners and Chinese over this.”

The suddenly controversial joke page was given to former Sunday Morning Post editor Niall Fraser about a month ago but Clifford waited until last week to take formal action against two of those responsible, veteran journalists Trevor Willison and Paul Ruffini. About eight others are said to have had a role in the page, which is a tradition for departing employees at newspapers around the world,

Clifford called the page, which was not circulated or published, ‘’obscene’’ and ‘’intolerable’’ due to the headline “You’re a c**t, but you’re a good c**t” (written with the asterisks intact).

At Tuesday’s meeting Clifford reportedly said that his high standards of conduct had been made “quite clear’’ to the newspaper’s staff when he joined the paper.

Clifford, who had called the Fraser page ‘’something you would not want to show your mother,’’ was also reportedly asked about a previous farewell page that also contained off-color jokes which Clifford had personally presented to an exiting employee at a farewell ceremony.

“He simply said that he had paid ‘more attention’ to Niall’s page,’’ said a source who did not want to be identified. “He called Niall’s page ‘obscene’ and said it was intolerable and inappropriate to produce it on SCMP equipment.’’

The contents of the page were written by former SCMP staffers and friends of Fraser whom Clifford was powerless to reprimand.

Following the firings, Clifford sent out an office-wide e-mail in which he said, “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.”

The e-mail provoked widespread anger and led directly to the petition.

Meanwhile, the story, which the Sentinel first reported on Monday, was picked up by several websites and newspapers, provoking amusement and disbelief among some media observers.

British editor Alan Geere, who lectures in journalism in London and has been a chief editor of several newspapers, said on his blog, Alan Geere Online, “Maybe to have c**t not once, but twice, on the page wasn’t the brightest idea… but for the editor-in-chief to not only fire them but also send out a pompous email may also count as an, er, misjudgment.

“As a fully paid-up member of the editor-in-chief club I always reckon its best to save your public bollockings, sorry b*********s, for something that really matters, aka something that affects readers.”

Britain’s Guardian newspaper, reported Wednesday that staff were considering legal action against Clifford but the paper gave no details.

Some eyebrows were also raised by an article in the Post itself on Wednesday. A column in the business section on former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who was in Hong Kong for a talk to Citibank clients, was headlined, “Listening to dissent is better business than firing jerks.” Rubin said that a progressive corporate leadership style entails being "sensitive to the [employees] and [listening] to them carefully." Columnist Tom Holland wrote: "The hierarchical command and control mode of management which used to be common in the US and by which many Hong Kong companies are still run 'rarely works today,' Rubin warned."

Holland compared Rubin's advice with the tough style of former GE chairman Jack Welch, whose management code was summed up as "send the jerks packing." According to Welch, a jerk is a manager who "delivers the numbers but doesn't live the values’ of a company,’” Holland wrote. “Needless to say, a company's values are whatever the boss decides. In this model, anyone who does not wholeheartedly embrace the boss's own values is a jerk and should be ruthlessly culled.

“This may work for a time but any company that adopts this approach must ultimately fail. If all dissenters are eliminated, regardless of their talent, the boss will end up surrounded by a coterie of inflexible, unimaginative clones who faithfully parrot his every view. “.

There was no immediate response from the paper’s owners to the unprecedented petition from their angry employees.

The petition stated: “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.”

Clifford came to the Post after two years at cross town rival, The Standard. He had previously worked at Business Week magazine in Hong Kong.

He has not commented publicly on the matter and has referred reporters to Irene Ho, assistant marketing director for the SCMP. She did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

She said previously, “The Post's position is that [Ruffini and Willison] violated the work ethic.” She called Clifford's sackings and his office-wide e-mail “a careful decision.”

See previous story: No Joking Please, We’re Journalists