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FCC archives: Advance Hong Kong! Group set up to polish up city’s image

This article is reproduced from the June 1997 special edition of The Correspondent.

The Correspondent's coverage of the inaugural Advance Hong Kong meeting. The Correspondent’s coverage of the inaugural Advance Hong Kong meeting.

The first meeting of a new group dedicated to improving the world’s view of Hong Kong proved to be ill-tempered. The Correspondent reporter was riveted to his seat at the front of the room. Also on this page, Jonathan Mirsky of The Times and Steve Vines of The Independent in London, share their thoughts on Advance Hong Kong.

If there is one thing the first meeting of Advance Hong Kong demonstrated, it is that there are two sides to every story.

Advance Hong Kong is a pressure group set up by FCC member Ted Thomas to “talk back” to the international media which, he says, is feeding the rest of the world biased stories about how Hong Kong is doomed. The inaugural meeting of the AHK at the FCC was riven with distrust on both sides of the media camp.

A few days before the meeting, Advance Hong Kong had published the following advertisement in the South China Morning Post: “Help us stop 5 billion people being fed garbage.”

The veteran Thomas and fellow Advance Hong Kong member Thomas Axmacher, who is chairman of the Hong Kong Hotels Association, claimed that the foreign media had been busy blackening the name of the territory. The likes of Robert Chua, the owner of a “No news, no sex, no violence” satellite TV channel targeted at China, came along to give support.

“The press has successfully killed the golden goose,” Axmacher had roared, as he blamed the media for 10,000 reservations of Hong Kong’s 34,000 hotel rooms being cancelled for the Handover.

Axmacher and Thomas memorably quoted “taxi driver wisdom” to amen their points. Axmacher said that at recent hotel industry fairs in Tokyo and Osaka journalists had asked “questions like they were coming from the moon”.

Next up was Chua, who complained that “not one single person has ever congratulated me” on the return of Hong Kong to China. Chua said that reporters and commentators had been “misusing their freedom” in their coverage of the Handover story.

After the formal presentations came the questions.

The first came from Bernard Wijedoru, an engineer by profession, whose business card lists him as being a “PRC appointed Hong Kong District Affairs Advisor” and “Committee Member, Association for Celebration of Reunification of Hong Kong with China”.

“No, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy,” he began before saying, “Bad news is better than good news.”

The premise of his question was that the territory is a victim of a “Western conspiracy and that (it) cannot succeed except as a western colony”.

Thomas’s response was swift: “No, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy,” he began before saying, “Bad news is better than good news.”

Another speaker was Elaine Goodwin who has spent 27 years in Hong Kong and who offered a reminder of what life in Hong Kong is about. She noted that it is safe for a woman to be out by herself at four o’clock in the morning and “we don’t have serial killers because our police catch them”.

Observers at the meeting suggested that both Wijedoru and Goodwin represented Advance Hong Kong’s two partisan lobbies: the older expat community and the pro-China constituency.

The pro-China lobby was also represented by some of the local speakers who appeared to feel more affinity to the future than the past. That at least was the view of speaker Sam Ho, who added that he was “very upset” at all the China-bashing.

The general irritability of some of the supporters of Advance Hong Kong was illustrated after a couple of reporters’ questions to the panel, after which one of them demanded, “Who pays you? Who pays you?”

Towards the end of the meeting matters came to a head, although not a resolution, when yet another skeptical question was posed from the front of the room. Frank, a burly expatriate, then told all the skeptics to “bugger off as quickly as possible. There are plenty of planes”.

As Winston Churchill, who was a Great Communicator long before the spin doctors got into the business, said: “Everyone is in favour of free speech. But some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else also says something bad, that is an outrage.”

Print the negs, by Steve Vines

Stephen Vines Stephen Vines

Why is the foreign media not writing the good news about Hong Kong? Why, say our apparently growing band of critics, must we always accentuate the negative? Like the ghastly mother of the rule-breaking ballroom dancer in the brilliant Australian film “Ballroom Dancing” [sic], we are urged to put on our “happy face” when we address the public.

The sad face should, we are told, be tucked away in a drawer somewhere. The problem is that the public is not really interested in what may be labelled good news or bad news, it wants what may be called real news.

Real news tends to be about people and events at times of change. It may be a very small change, such as the closure of a series of roads, or a really big change like the change in sovereignty due to occur in Hong Kong on July 1.

By definition the news is not necessarily good or bad but interesting because it relates to dynamic events.

Thanks to the efforts of our esteemed FCC member Ted Thomas, an interesting group of fellows, mainly expatriate, public relations men, businessmen and others have been drawn together to form an organisation dedicated to denouncing the foreign press for spreading a negative image of the colony.

At their founding meeting carefully selected members of the audience were called upon to deliver testimonials about how the dreadful foreign media were undermining their businesses. They told tales of meeting taxi drivers in far flung places who had a distorted picture of Hong Kong’s stability.

Fortunately, for the spreaders of disinformation, like myself, Mr Thomas and his cronies came up with an entirely barmy solution to the problem. I say fortunately because I would hate to have to defend every single report filed from Hong Kong, many of which are as barking as the new organisation.

Their solution? Get this: they proposed to sign up a bunch of no hopers drawn from the ranks of foreign journalists (believe me, no one but a no hoper would be party to this scheme) and get them to visit newsrooms around the globe to tell editors that their coverage of Hong Kong is inaccurate and unfair. Presumably the said editors would then have a total rethink of their Hong Kong coverage, kick out the generally well-respected correspondents based here and replace them with the aforementioned no hopers, who would write glowing reports about what’s happening.

The PR men are mobilised, at an hourly rate, like the world’s oldest profession, to improve the message but what are they to do if the message is less than, shall we say, perfect?

Alternately they might be shown the door or even fail to be invited in for a chat. PR men have some strange ideas about what goes on in newsrooms.

Although this is up there among the more crazy of the schemes which I have had the misfortune to witness, it is far from unique. There is an understandable tendency for people to question the  messenger more closely than the message. Bad news is therefore the fault of those bringing the news. The Romans dealt with this rather severely by killing messengers delivering ill tidings. Nowadays we die a slow death (figuratively, I stress) caused by prolonged wingeing.

The PR men are mobilised, at an hourly rate, like the world’s oldest profession, to improve the message but what are they to do if the message is less than, shall we say, perfect?

I spent many years covering the Middle East, specifically the Israel-Palestine conflict. The memory of messenger shooting in those days still haunts me. I recall being harangued by government spokesmen for being part of a ‘Zionist plot’ or alternately ‘an anti-Semitic conspiracy’ because I had reported something which one side or the other did not like.

Lamentably no one has ever allowed me to join their plot. Even here in Hong Kong I have never been approached by the CIA, MI5 or whoever, to do their dirty work. I’m not saying I would help them, but sometimes a chap likes to be asked.

Don’t get me wrong, the average hack, or journalists as we are sometimes called, is no paragon of virtue. We come in all shapes and sizes. All human life is here from low, to lower and, just occasionally we hit some highs. I can say, hand on heart, that some of the very worst people I’ve met are journalists.

I can equally say that some of the best are drawn from the same trade. The idea that this notoriously hard to organise bunch of people could ever be part of anyone’s plot to do down any spot on earth is so absurd that only very gullible people could believe it.

Yet we do suffer from herd-like behaviour and hacks do tend to follow the herd, even if it is leading in a wrong direction. This, however, should not be construed as being part of a plot. It is no more than stupidity. I don’t think there is much to be gained from defending stupidity, but I hate to see it confused with well thought out intent.

None of us is perfect. I’m told that even PR men suffer from imperfection, but that’s no more than a rumour. Mostly we are just working stiffs, trying to get a job done. Lamentably, for the conspiracists, it is no more complex than that.

Ted’s folly? by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky Jonathan Mirsky

It is always fashionable to attack the press and often with good reason. much of what appears in it is garbage. Or offensive.

An editor recently asked me to go to Taiwan to interview the mother of a kidnapped, tortured and murdered girl. I said I assumed she was joking. Yes, indeed. Much dreck in the papers. As in public relations. For those who missed Mr Thomas’ meeting in late April, this – with a few cuts for space – is how I reported it for my paper. Mr Thomas told me later it was fair.

A group of Hong Kong businessmen yesterday condemned the foreign press for its biased reporting during the period before the transfer of sovereignty to China, and blamed the international media here for causing the hotel, tourist and retail businesses to decline badly.

The newly founded group, Advance Hong Kong, held its first meeting, attended by about 100 mostly foreign tourist agency and hotel managers, factory owners, artists and retail shop owners, who accused international journalists of causing people in Europe and Japan, as one of them put it, to ‘think that Hong Kong was going down the slippery slope and is doomed because of the Handover to China’.

The group was formed and the meeting last night chaired by Ted Thomas, a public relations executive.

China is responsible for its own bad image: Tibet, Wei Jingsheng, US campaign money, Tiananmen – a poisonous cocktail.

“We are going to fight fire with fire,” said Mr Thomas, who announced that he intended to pay the travel and hotel expenses of Hong Kong-based journalists and ‘tell editors and publishers what a great place Hong Kong is’.

Mr Thomas declared at the outset that no one could speak at the meeting ‘except those who are like-minded’. After about a dozen in the audience spoke about the harm the international press had caused the hotel business, whose bookings for the period after the summer were claimed to have sunk by over 10 per cent, and the tourist business, about which the same was said, Mr Thomas told reporters, “I hope you report that the views at this meeting are unanimous”.

James Tien, president of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday, however, that successful international businesses paid no attention to the press and based their views of Hong Kong’s future on what local experts told them.

Mr Thomas has written to me that he can’t yet name what he terms his ‘apostles’ or ‘ambassadors’ because some of those interviewed might not meet his standard and he would not want to embarrass the failures. I warned him that a journalist showing up in a respectable newsroom with ‘good news’ about Hong Kong, and on expenses, would be lucky to be invited to submit a written piece in the traditional manner.

Of course, what Mr Thomas and his supporters allege about the press bad-mouthing and its near-fatal effects is nonsense, especially since they can’t deny most of the local economy is booming. Their selected quote from Keith Richburg says it all, that ‘activists’ had demonstrated. Well, they did and Keith reported it. Just as he recently reported on the man who goes about writing curious messages on walls. That’s what we do: report.

Mr Thomas and his friends say hotel bookings are down. I make two suggestions: First, investigate the effect of the scare campaign last year by the hotels that they would be packed out this summer, urging early booking, and posting outrageous rates. Second, China is coming to Hong Kong. People read Mr Tung’s plans for a ‘stable’ city which – can there be anything weirder? – forbids demonstrations for Tibet’s and Xinjiang’s independence and will not register political parties which ‘threaten national security’.

Things like that worry people. Bookings are down in China too. China is responsible for its own bad image: Tibet, Wei Jingsheng, US campaign money, Tiananmen – a poisonous cocktail. As James Tien says, it doesn’t stop businessmen from investigating here. What might slow them down is another factor, discussed by Philip Segal in the IHT, May 16 and 17: what is the Hong Kong economy?

Of course, press bashing has a corollary: press control. Mr Tung has only to mention the international media in a certain tone at a business lunch and he gets thunderous applause. He never mentions the local press which is not entirely tamed yet, in which his vision of a Hong Kong where research on Tibetan pr Taiwanese independence is illegal and is scrutinised critically.

No, it’s the international press. A foreign reporter recently asked Mr Tung if his, the reporter’s, life would change on July 1. Wait and see, said Mr Tung. I can’t wait that long, said the reporter.

OK, said the future chief executive, read Basic Law, Article 23. And Mr Thomas thinks we’re a threat.

FCC archive: Amid China’s tightening censorship, Hong Kong editors test the limits

This article is reproduced from the March 1997 edition of The Correspondent.

The Correspondent reports on censorship fears ahead of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong The Correspondent reports on censorship fears ahead of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong

Mainland censorship of major news stories has always been something of a problem. What will happen after the handover?

By Dinah Lee

“We knew it was nonsense the first day we saw it, but it’s something to hang onto while we’re drowning,” said Bill Chan of the Sino-British agreement under which Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997. Chan is the China editor of the news division of the territory’s leading television station, HK-TVB, owned by legendary movie car Run Run Shaw. Chan was speaking candidly late last year at a private dinner hosted by the National Committee on United States-China Relations.

Chan was there as part of a five-man delegation visiting New York. The group’s membership spanned Hong Kong’s political spectrum and included the deputy chief editor of the once-colonial English-language daily South China Morning Post, editorial writers from Tin Tin Daily and the left-wing Wen Wei Po and the international news editor of Hong Kong Commercial Daily, considered sympathetic to the mainland.

As a follow-up to the successful panel discussion sponsored by the Freedom Forum and OPC on the threats to Hong Kong’s press freedom, the informal chat gave members of the Overseas Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee a chance to better understand the problems that Hong Kong editors face daily, even before the official handover.

The topic must be specified ahead of time… Therefore, if there’s breaking news, it’s impossible to do our job legally.

Chan singled out broadcast journalism as the most precarious media because of its visibility. “I print you can run editorials or news stories without bylines, but our first priority must be to protect our staff. Under the seven regulations, which govern Hong Kong and (neighbouring) Macau journalists working on the mainland, we are only officially allowed to cover stories after receiving permission two to three weeks in advance,” Chan said. “The topic must be specified ahead of time. And we can’t go to Beijing and cover other stories on the side. Therefore, if there’s breaking news, it’s impossible to do our job legally.”

Chan’s comments were reference to the crackdown on Hong Kong journalists after the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989.

The post-1989 regulations have proved an effective carrot-and-stick system for controlling who and which organisations work inside China. For major events in Beijing, reporters’ names must be submitted for clearance to the new China News Agency in Hong Kong. The NCNA will demand a replacement if the nominated reporter has politically ‘transgressed’ in the past.

Chan described the current modus operandi as an uneasy accommodation whereby TVB reporters on the mainland bring their footage back to Hong Kong for standups or the packaging before being broadcast. TVB cannot establish and official news bureau in Beijing, so their reporters operate from a de facto bureau and are seen on the job regularly by Chinese authorities. “So of course, they know we’re there,” said Chan. TVB reporters on the mainland are always exposed to the risk of being arrested and formally charged and in fact they are detained constantly for many hours at a time, said Chan.

Self-censorship is a worrying trend among Hong Kong media. For the time being, none of the editors seemed too sure of how rigidly the Chinese would interpret the limits on criticism of Beijing leaders recently stated by the Chinese foreign minister, Qian Qichen. “It’s alright if our criticisms are based on facts, not rumours,” said Lui Kin Hung of the Hong Kong Commercial Daily.

“Does that mean we can call Li Peng an animal or not?” retorted Chan, a joke on Li Peng’s name in Chinese, which means ‘roc’, a gigantic bird of Eastern legend. Chan admitted his station has already refrained from moves that might brand TVB in Beijing as a troublemaker. For example, a controversial documentary on the life of Mao Zedung has stayed on the shelf for more than two years.

Asked, hypothetically, whether the South China Morning Post would drop columnists who are critical of the Communist Party such as legislators Emily Lau and Christine Loh under post-1997 intimidation from the Communists, Cambridge-educated Victor Fung said half-jokingly, “Sure.” Then he added, “Seriously, we would have to look at who owns us after 1997 and make a decision at that time.”

If somebody sits over me every day and tells me what to do, I would just get up and walk away

Currently the South China Morning Post is owned by Malaysian business tycoon Robert Kuok, but he has major business interests on the mainland and could easily be swayed by Communist interests – or even sell the paper to them. In fact, when the former head of the New China News Agency, Xi Jiantun, defected to a Buddhist temple in San Diego after the Tiananmen incident, he wrote in his memoirs of discussions with Beijing to take a controlling interest in the newspaper.

According to a 1995 report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Communist government stepped up their infiltration of Hong Kong media organisations after June 4, 1989. Lui of the Commercial Daily said it was now no secret who was the so-called mainland ‘uncle’ from the Communist Party on their editorial staff, as the person in question also serves in Beijing as a high-ranking Communist Party official in the State Council’s office of press affairs. In other newspapers China’s agents might adopt a much lower profile.

Chan says that the Communists cannot afford to interfere too openly in the early days of the coming transition. “If somebody sits over me every day and tells me what to do, I would just get up and walk away,” he said. “They can’t afford to have everybody walk out, so it will be alright for at least the first five years. Then we have to see.”

Chan said it’s a question of constantly testing the limits. He also saw some comfort in that Hong Kong issues are still referred in Beijing to Lu Ping, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, who seems to understand Hong Kong better than most of the leadership in Beijing.

The author, a former member and officer of the FCC, spent 20 years reporting on Chinese affairs from Hong Kong and the mainland, notably for The Economist, Business Week, and the International Herald Tribune. Her first Asian reporting job was with the South China Morning Post as a local reporter in 1974. She is the recipient of the Overseas Press Club’s 1991 human rights award for her coverage of Chinese prison labor exports and has served since 1993 as co-chair of the OPC’s Freedom of the Press Committee.

Reprinted courtesy of the Overseas Press Club

FCC archive: The rise and fall of Hong Kong’s Eastern Express newspaper

This article is reproduced from the November 1994 edition of The Correspondent 

The Correspondent's coverage of the 1994 saga of the Eastern Express newspaper The Correspondent’s coverage of the 1994 saga of the Eastern Express newspaper

Since its launch last February, the Eastern Express has been making almost as much news as it has been reporting. The Correspondent examines its recent history, talks to the Oriental Press Group’s C.K. Ma and prints a plea from ex-chief editor of the Express, Steve Vines.

Nobody can deny it’s been a heart-stopping, roller-coaster nine months since the hoopla of the launch of the Oriental Press Group’s (OPG) Eastern Express. The stylishly-designed broadsheet was expected by many to give both the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and the Hong Kong Standard serious competition and to change he face of the local English-language newspaper market.

However, as most FCC members know, the story didn’t evolve as many would have hoped. To begin with, there was bad blood between some defecting members of the SCMP and its management as the journalists took up senior positions at the Express. Then the launch of the paper was delayed because of highly technical computer problems. Although the design of the paper was almost universally admired, when it finally hit the streets many professionals were surprised by some of the early news selections.

Even so, chief editor and former club president Steve Vines managed to create the feeling of an authoritative, modern publication with excellent foreign and comment pages. The Weekend magazine was a first-class product. Above all, the quality of the photography astonished readers with its clarity of reproduction and its imaginative execution. The uncounted hours of hard work by all concerned were apparently paying off.

However, as was inevitable with a new product, the paper soon began to show signs of wear and tear. Within weeks questions were raised about the paucity of advertising. It was said there were few financial controls and that relations between the OPG management and staff were growing tense. In the end Vines departed. Talk of treachery was also abroad and accusations of ‘spying’ and disloyalty emerged from several quarters. It wasn’t an elevating spectacle.

The cover story of November 1994 The cover story of November 1994

Club member Jon Marsh, one of the most vociferous ex-SCMP staffers, took over as acting editor. Further rumours of poor staff management/relations went spinning through the always-voracious newspaper gossip mill. Then C.K. Ma, the OPG chairman, was said to be in London offering the job of chief editor to high-priced Fleet Street journalists. The paper would close within weeks. The Weekend magazine was to be closed or, at best, relaunched on newsprint rather than high-grade paper.

In the event, while personalities clashed, the management had, indeed, decided to take the printing of the Saturday magazine in-house on lower-grade newsprint to save some $500,000 per month. Senior staffers, including Marsh, production editor Ewen Campbell and magazine editor Steve Procter threatened to resign and the magazine’s paper quality was given a reprieve.

At much the same time, while on assignment in China, a young female reporter ran into trouble over a story she had written about the political make-up of post ’97 Hong Kong. Accusations – not so unusual in newsrooms – about the irresponsible rewriting of the reporters’ copy, caused further tension.

Finally, Campbell was sacked for complex personnel reasons surrounding his proposed elevation to deputy chief editor. Marsh and Procter resigned in protest along with, among others China editor, Robert Delfs, and deputy foreign editor Gavin Greenwood, all members of the FCC.

As matters shook down, veteran local journalist and Club member Timothy Jim took the reins as a special assistant to C.K. Ma. He appointed foreign editor and former Correspondent editor Karl Wilson as an associate editor to liaise with the editorial staff, while veteran newspaper man Vernon Ram, with more than 40 years in the business, was reportedly hired to look into the launch of a Sunday edition of the Express. Peter Metrevelli, one of Hong Kong’s longest-serving turf correspondents, was appointed racing editor. Four new Chinese reporters joined the staff.

With a daily circulation rumoured to be anything between 10,000 and 30,000, the Eastern Express is now said to be metamorphosing into an “English-language newspaper with Chinese characteristics”. An amusing crack but probably not true.

Heading for strangulation: We print the outgoing chief editor’s op-ed that the Oriental Press Group dropped

Former Club president Steve Vines wrote the following article for publication in the Eastern Express shortly before he was removed as the paper’s chief editor. The Oriental Press Group, however, decided against publication. The Correspondent publishes it for the record.

Revolutions tend to eat their babies. This newspaper revolution is no exception. That is why I am writing for the last time as chief editor of Eastern Express. Some readers may feel that an exaggerated claim is being made here. They might well ask: can the launch of this newspaper really be described as a revolution? I think it can. Hong Kong has essentially been a one English-language newspaper town for more decades than most people care to count. The alternative to the market leader has been in the hands of an under-funded competitor, kept alive but rarely given the means to breathe with real life.

After the seal was set on the transfer of sovereignty in Hong Kong, it seemed even less likely that anyone would have the courage to start a new English-language newspaper. The pessimists were wrong. They underestimated the spirit of enterprise which pulsates through this place, they underestimated the thirst for untainted news and they underestimated the determination of Hong Kong people to preserve the freedoms which have made this famously barren rock one of the world’s greatest trading centres.

Ewen Campbell, Steve Proctor and Jon Marsh, EE Towers, 1994. Photo: Eastern Express Ewen Campbell, Steve Proctor and Jon Marsh, 1994. Photo: Eastern Express

This was the spirit which brought about the birth of the Eastern Express – a paper committed to independence in news reporting and dedicated to being an open market for the exchange of ideas and views.

What, you may ask, is so revolutionary about all that? The answer is very little in countries which enjoy a free press. It is only revolutionary in circumstances where this freedom has been extinguished or is in the process of being squeezed to the point of strangulation.

Fortunately Hong Kong’s press has yet to experience strangulation but we are heading in that direction.

One of our television stations is now reluctant to carry any news which reflects badly on the Chinese government, many newspapers are becoming increasingly selective about what they report and how they report news which is considered to be “sensitive”.

The Eastern Express chose to travel down the other path. This happens to be a more conventional path where news stories are treated according to merit, not the sensitivity of Chinese officials. It takes us in directions which may not lead to the winning of friends in high places but this was never our intention.

In other words, we have worked on the assumption that China must at least be given the benefit of the doubt in matters of press freedom. We saw no reason to retreat from the field of battle before the battle even began.

In many ways we could be considered to be Hong Kong’s true optimists – some may say, foolhardy optimists. We have carefully studied the territory’s new mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and found it to contain unequivocal guarantees of press freedom. We have listened carefully to the speeches of Chinese leaders about the “one country, two systems” concept and assumed that they meant what they said.

Eastern Express first issue, February 1994. Eastern Express first issue, February 1994.

In other words, we have worked on the assumption that China must at least be given the benefit of the doubt in matters of press freedom. We saw no reason to retreat from the field of battle before the battle even began. This seems pretty much like common sense but in some quarters is regarded as wild talk.

What does it mean in practice? How can we claim that the Eastern Express is really different from any other English-language newspaper in Hong Kong? Allow me to provide some examples.

Let’s start with China coverage. Other newspapers cover a national People’s Congress meeting as if it really is a decision-making occasion – filled with debates likely to shape China’s future. This is nonsense and created as such on our pages because we believe our readers to be intelligent enough to want to know the true function of the congress meeting. Another example is more telling.

We published in full the only document we have published in full in the newspaper’s history, the extraordinary speech made by former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Zhou Ziyang, prepared (but not delivered) for a meeting of the party’s central committee on the eve of his removal from power in 1989. This is probably the most revealing internal document from the Communist Party to reach the public domain since the revolution.

We claim no credit for securing the document, this honour goes to the Hong Kong Economic Journal which generously made it available to the media as a whole. We merely translated the speech into English. We were the only Hong Kong newspaper to take advantage of EJ’s offer. This is quite extraordinary because in terms of significance the speech is at least as important as Nikita Khrushchev’s address to the twentieth congress of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party at which he revealed the crimes committed by dictator Stalin. Very few newspapers in countries with a free press would show the kind of restraint displayed by the Hong Kong press over the Zhou speech.

For the record, we cover China seriously because the fate of Hong Kong is firmly tied to the mainland and readers have a right to as much information as possible about the new sovereign power.

The creeping polarisation of Hong Kong society has led our critics to assume that because we have covered China in such a fearless manner, we must therefore be pro-British, or at the very least pro-Chris Patten. It is depressing that news coverage is viewed through the narrow prism which classifies reportage into the tight categories of pro or anti this, that or the other. For the record, we cover China seriously because the fate of Hong Kong is firmly tied to the mainland and readers have a right to as much information as possible about the new sovereign power. We never set out to be pro-British and the idea that this paper is pro-government will produce howls of hollow laughter from a great many civil servants in Lower Albert Road who can barely contain their anger when the words Eastern Express are uttered.

It is a matter of pride that this newspaper has forced the government to act in circumstances where it should have acted on its own accord. Our revelations about the April attack on the Whitehead Detention Centre compelled the Governor to order an independent inquiry. Our coverage of the fate of illegal Chinese immigrants held in detention for months while they waited to give evidence in criminal trials rightly led to their release These are examples of good, old-fashioned campaigning journalism, rooted in hard-nosed reporting. The reporters did not set out to embarrass the government of the day. They set out to unearth the truth.

Aside from content, the Eastern Express has been revolutionary in form. We ventured where other newspapers feared to tread in terms of design, use of photographs, daring to have a magazine with real substance rather than easy-on-the-eye wallpaper and we dared to be different in the way we covered the news, abandoning the predictable and routine in favour of the interesting and exciting.

Am I being self-serving and self-indulgent? I plead guilty, but can only say in mitigation that a departing editor should be allowed a small piece of self-indulgence. Fortunately you have the choice of whether you want to put up with it. There is still a choice here. Newspapers live and die by virtue of the choices readers make. Hong Kong will never be the same if the media offers no choice.

Chasing a cool $4 billion – Simon Twiston Davies’ exclusive Q&A with OPG chairman C.K. Ma.

The Correspondent: What was the chronology of the founding of the Eastern Express? What kind of market research was carried out?

C.K. Ma: When we moved into our existing premises in Kowloon Bay in 1990 provision was made for expansion. After that we launched the Oriental Sunday, Jade Magazine, The Sun Racing Journal and Eastweek Magazine. Expanding into the English-language market was a natural and logical step for the Oriental Press Group. Such a move not only gave us a good corporate image it also gave us a springboard into the international market.

I made the decision to launch the Eastern Express after hearing the news that there was to be change in management at the South China Morning Post.

According to figures released at the time, one third of the issued shares of the SCMP were worth about HK$3 billion, based on a daily circulation of about 100,000. That meant that a successful English-language newspaper could be worth something like HK$10 billion. Moreover, the Chinese newspaper publishing business has almost reached saturation point and there is very little potential for growth.

I estimated that if the OPG could put out an English-language newspaper just half as successful as the SCMP – that is with a daily circulation of around 50,000 copies per day – the value of the group would increase by a cool $4 billion. Doesn’t that sound like a good investment?

The publication of an English-language newspaper is a good fit for our existing facilities and mode of operation, especially as an English paper with a small print run would slot perfectly into our daily production schedule in our newly-upgraded, $200 million facilities.

I estimated that if the OPG could put out an English-language newspaper just half as successful as the SCMP – that is with a daily circulation of around 50,000 copies per day – the value of the group would increase by a cool $4 billion. Doesn’t that sound like a good investment? We took on the project as a long-term investment and hope it will straddle 1997.

TC: Having undertaken the launch of the paper, did you envisage the product you were given, or were you hoping for a more ‘racy’ tabloid as seen in the Oriental Daily News?

CKM: The aim of the Eastern Express is to capture a share of the SCMP group’s circulation. We have never considered the idea of a tabloid newspaper. From the start, our objective was to publish a modern, quality product. This conviction is reflected in our investment in state-of-the-art equipment and our decision to print on high-grade newsprint with top-quality ink that will not blacken readers’ hands when they flip through the pages.

TC: A recent issue of the Sunday Morning Post ran an interview with Mike Hanson, the outgoing government information co-ordinator. He admitted having had discussions with you prior to the launch of the Eastern Express. Could you comment?

CKM: I read the article in the Sunday Morning Post. It said that the government information co-ordinator had a hand in the creation of the Eastern Express. This is ironic. I would like to ask the management of the SCMP if it enjoyed special privileges from the government, like, the provision of exclusive stories and advertising and other support, in the “good old days”?

Since I publish a newspaper in Hong Kong, of course, a good relationship with the government of the day is vital to our operations. And since Mike Hanson is the information co-ordinator, who else should we turn to if we want to understand the government’s thinking? We would certainly like to develop a good relationship with his successor and hope to gain the same support from the administration as the SCMP has enjoyed in the past.

TC: Many questions have been raised about the circulation of the Eastern Express. What is it today?

CKM: We have joined the international ABC group for a circulation audit and we expect to publish the results around February. As a member of the ABC, we have to abide by its regulations which require the distribution of circulation figures one year after publication.

Where the Eastern Express will stand in a year’s time has to be judged by public support when the time comes.

TC: The fast start-up of the paper is seen by some as being at the root of many of the early editorial problems . Given a second chance, would you have taken longer to launch the Eastern Express?

CKM: The successful launch of a newspaper very much depends on good timing. Sufficient financial resources, up-to-date plant and first-class human resources are also vital elements. In my view, the success of a newspaper requires constant fine-tuning. Even the SCMP, after 90 years of publication, needs constant fine-tuning.

TC: Advertising has been sparse since the launch of the paper. Could you tell us about your advertising sales strategy?

CKM: The advertising volume of a newspaper usually takes time to grow. The Eastern Express is just another newspaper and should not be singled out for criticism. It is unfair to compare a nine-month-old venture with another product which has a 90-year history.

TC: “Cultural differences” have been widely quoted in reference to the management/staff relationship at the Eastern Express. Has “culture” played a role in the difficulties over the past four months or so?

CKM: That’s really a hypothetical question. To imply that a management with a Chinese cultural background would have difficulties managing a group of Western journalists would incite undue racial conflict. That is deplorable. However, I realise that such reasoning could provide a convenient excuse for those stepping down to cloud the real issues. Please remember, that Hong Kong’s success is due primarily to the fact that we have blended the cultures of East and West.

TC: Eventually a new chief editor will have to be appointed at the Eastern Express. Will it be an international appointment? Will more expatriate staff be appointed?

CKM: My philosophy is simple: to give the job to the right person.

TC: Where do you see the paper in 12 months’ time?

CKM: We will work hard in order to live up to public expectations. Where the Eastern Express will stand in a year’s time has to be judged by public support when the time comes.

Simon Twiston Davies is a contributing columnist to the Eastern Express.

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