Turmoil inside Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post continued Monday with the forced resignation of the paper’s business editor, Stuart Jackson.
The move is seen inside the paper as a sharp rebuke to Post Editor-in-Chief Mark Clifford, as his closest ally departed for “personal reasons,” according to an internal e-mail sent a month after a staff revolt against Clifford brought to light sharp dissension inside one of Asia’s premier English language newspapers.
Jackson, hand-picked by Clifford to overhaul the Post’s business coverage, had been on the job only seven months when he tendered his surprise resignation. The move was interpreted by insiders as a reaction by the paper's board of directors to the employee revolt in early November in which more than 100 staffers petitioned the paper’s chairman asking for the reinstatement of two senior editors fired for their minor roles in putting together an off-color, in-house mock front page as a tribute for another employee Clifford had sacked.
Jackson, like Clifford an American, was previously business editor for the Post’s cross-town rival, The Standard, until he followed Clifford from the Standard to the Post in February. In turn Jackson had taken a clutch of business reporters and editors from The Standard to the Post.
While Jackson’s exit from the Post was not linked to the brouhaha over the joke page, staffers at in-house “town hall” meetings held with senior Post management following the petition expressed deep unhappiness not only with Clifford but also with Jackson – who was widely viewed as Clifford’s confidant and chief lieutenant. Staff reporters say Jackson, as Clifford did, ran into a severe culture clash with the Post’s staff over coverage of business news, with Jackson kicking back story ideas because, he told them, the stories weren’t important.
The meetings over the firings of the two editors raised a further grievance — the October sacking of yet another employee, a young, relatively inexperienced photographer who was sacked after a man he photographed for the business section was misidentified in the caption. The mistaken identity led to a remarkable front page apology signed by Clifford. Many staffers felt Clifford blamed an underling when responsibility for the embarrassment ultimately lay with Jackson.
“No one else in the chain of command was held responsible for the mistake, no one in business, no one on the sub desk,” said a Post employee, who like all others in this story spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Jackson’s resignation came as he was due to return from vacation and just as his second-in-command, former Standard staffer Jonathan Tam, was due to go on leave. Clifford’s e-mail said that Post staffers Karen Chan and Ewen Campbell “will supervise the operation of the business section until a new business editor is appointed.” Both Chan and Campbell were at the paper prior to the arrival of both Clifford and Jackson and their ascendancy is regarded inside the paper as a setback for Jackson’s allies.
The memo went on to extol the “significant progress” of the paper’s business coverage and invited “comments or suggestions” about business coverage.
“I don’t think Clifford was very happy about having to do it,” said one business staffer. “The board (of directors) forced his hand. Everything blew up about three weeks ago with the petition and someone had to go. So it was Stuart.”
Clifford, a former Asia editor for Business Week magazine, became controversial when he declared that the mock front page, which was only circulated privately, violated his standards of decency because it contained the word c**t, in reference to Niall Fraser, an editor he had fired. The italics were printed in the page, a standard tribute to departing employees in many newspapers worldwide.
That incident uncovered sharp differences between Clifford’s management style and the paper’s employees. Clifford told protesting staff members that his high standards had been made “quite clear’’ 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.’’