SCMP CEO’s ‘personal frustration’ – as he denies title is influenced by Alibaba or Chinese government

The chief executive officer of the South China Morning Post has stressed the newspaper remains independent and insisted “not once” has the publication been asked to kill a story in his 18 months at the helm.

During an on-stage interview at the 2018 International Media Conference in Singapore, Gary Liu was questioned on the SCMP’s independence – or potential lack of – since its acquisition by Alibaba in late 2015.

The newspaper has also faced accusations that it now pushes a far softer image of the Chinese regime, partly a result of Alibaba’s ownership and the retailer’s close relationship with Beijing.

Liu rejected the idea that there were any external forces pulling the strings, and admitted it was a “personal frustration” that the mission of the SCMP and its coverage of China was misunderstood.

“I am not sure it matters whether we are properly understood, I don’t think it effects the way our newsroom operates and the way it reports or its convictions,” he told interviewee, and Mumbrella contributor, Alan Soon. “But it is a personal frustration because I still feel it’s too easy to default to a simple argument about what it means to report on China and what it should look like verses the complexity of what it actually looks like.”

Soon referred to a New York Times story which, not for the first time, questioned the SCMP’s editorial motivations and that of Alibaba. Liu said such coverage only motivated its journalists.

“The NYT article was the most positive article it has ever written about us, so that is progres, as at least they acknowledged the growth and acknowledged that we have impact in the world,” Liu said.

“The NYT has every right…. to question our intent. And the industry challenging our newsroom on editorial independence, and challenging our newsroom on quality, is great for me as the CEO. There is no inspirational speech that I can give that motivates my newsroom better than the NYT saying you are not good enough at your jobs.”

Liu said he hoped “one day” the conversation would revolve around the quality of its reporting and its products in “not only elevating the global understanding of China but also challenging China to be better for its citizens and the world”.

“I hope the narrative of the SCMP is based on that in the future and not only on ‘you are owned by X and therefore you must be Y’,” he said. “That is my hope. But between now and then we are having to keep pushing on and doing our best to be the most objective, and do the most transparent reporting on China that we can in an environment that everyone knows is not easy.

“Will we ever as a newsroom live it down? It’s probably always going to be up uphill PR battle for us.”

Pressed further on its independence, Liu said he found Alibaba to be “honest and earnest” in its commitment to editorial independence and said it had never interfered or sought to influence the Post’s reporting.

“Editorial independence is sacrosanct to our newsroom, to our ownership,” he added. “Alibaba has not in two years of ownership called or asked about a single story, and I do not expect them to.

He added: “In the year and half that I have been here, there has not been a instance of a story being killed because of sensitivity.”

The CEO argued that one high profile story pulled from its website – an investigative commentary into a Singaporean investor with alleged links to the Chinese president – was only done so as it contained assertions rather than facts.

Grundy: Questioned the SCMP’s handling of a state-organised interview

Liu also faced questions from Hong Kong Free Press editor Tom Grundy who accused the Post of “collaborating with the Chinese security services” by reporting on a state-arranged interview with bookseller and political critic Gui Minhai. 

Grundy said the interview was regarded by NGOs as a “forced confession” as to his unspecified and vague crimes. “No other international brodsheet would dream of doing that,” Grundy said. Liu rejected there was collaboration and said “the event itself was a story worth covering”.

“We were honest about who invited us,” he said. “We believed it was a news story that they were holding that press conference.” He indicated its independence by stating that the SCMP alone carried the image of two security guards standing next to Minhai.

“We also printed the NGOs reaction to it, and we printed opinions about how this was not a good situation,” Liu said. The Post also published an open letter from Gui Minhai’s daughter, he added.

Earlier in the interview, Liu spoke of the digital transformation he had overseen at the Post and revealed the early negative reaction from staff took him by surprise. But he conceded they had a “legitimate gripe” as he wasn’t from the industry “and wasn’t even from Hong Kong, or the greater China region”.

“When I first arrived I knew there would be hard conversations, but I didn’t expect the kind of pushback that I received in my first two months,” he said. “I met a number of people in the organisation….who had been there 20, 30, 40 years and the dismissive response that I got from what I thought would be plans that were exciting to them, shook me a bit.”

The major issues to overcome was a lack of trust and transparency and poor communication, Liu said, adding that while progress has been made, much works remains to be done. “I am not saying we have fixed it because a decade of legacy takes a long time to unpeel and unwrap,” he said, “And I have not earned the respect and full trust of my team, I still have to do much more.

“But if you talk to anyone in the newsroom and organisation my guess is that almost all of them would tell you the way the leadership communicates, the way the business makes decisions and the way internal teams operate is night and day verses a year and a half ago, I count that as a small success.”

He told delegates that when he first arrived at the Post, the lack of communication and trust was physical as well as cultural.

“We used to have this codified thing where the size of your desk and the height of your cubicle wall was dependent on your seniority,” he explained. “The more senior you got the more you could add levels to your cubicle walls.

“People who never got promotions to build their walls would literally start stacking up magazines and newspapers and start building fake walls. You could not see beyond the next table. Desk by desk there was limited conversation and communication.

He added: “There used to be a complete, almost irrational lack of transparency. Senior leadership would makes decisions behind closed doors and communicate just enough for the operational teams to know what they had to do, but almost never communicate the reasons why.”

Liu said regular town hall meetingsweare now held to inform staff of the firm’s goals and progress, while the reasons behind decisions were fully explained to staff.


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