Bad editorial judgment leaves newspaper looking good

It seems the South China Morning Post’s head honchoes were not impressed at the night-shift duty editor’s decision late Monday not to carry the ‘Jimmy Lai Eats Babies’ stuff China’s agents hacked from Next Media’s computers. To common readers, it looked like a good call: a refusal to pimp the front page out to the Chinese Communist Party’s dirty tricks brigade. To the paper’s big bosses, it was a glorious opportunity to serve Beijing squandered – a lost chance to show the proprietor that they would eagerly put Mainland propaganda ahead of journalistic integrity any day.

Still, you can’t undo the past; you just have to make the best of it. And so this morning, the SCMP reports the story to a large extent as the smear campaign it is. As if to say ‘We of course, unlike Sing Tao and so on, would never stoop so low as to spread this dirt’. The article runs down one column on the side on a front page dominated by news from a sprawling, impoverished and unmanageable archipelago of Javanese schemers, Balinese mystics, Overseas Chinese shysters and numerous tribes of jungle-dwellers and cannibals – where, despite more skullduggery than we can imagine, they’ve just pulled off a democratic election.

Better late than never, the SCMP sifts through the purloined materials anyway on page 3. Veteran pro-democrat Martin Lee on the radio this morning spoke of the revelations as a ‘white terror’, but the truth is that the hackers unearthed a vast pile of insipidness. The nearest approximation to juicy bits make, if anything, Beijing look bad. The Next Media mogul paid Paul Wolfowitz (pocket change, but then he’s no Kissinger or Blair) apparently to help open doors while looking for investment opportunities in Burma. Next’s management complained when (partly China-owned) Cathay Pacific kowtowed and withdrew advertising, and ex-Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s wife was reportedly upset when Catholic-phobic Communist officials barred her from Bishop Joseph Zen’s investiture as a Cardinal. Such is the excitement of rummaging through Jimmy Lai’s laundry basket.

So, owing to an error, the SCMP emerges with some integrity intact; if its editorial people had done their job ‘properly’, they would have harmed the paper’s reputation. It is a strange world we live in where a tycoon buys a media outlet in order to trash its integrity (and financial value) as a way of proving loyalty to the leaders of a Communist dictatorship – who have a long record of kicking sycophants in the teeth the second it suits them, at least when they’ve sorted out the latest bubonic plague outbreak.


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