6 December 2019
Ming Pao chief editor Cheung Kin-bor says the headline change was correct but the process for doing needs to be revised. Photo: HKEJ
Ming Pao chief editor Cheung Kin-bor says the headline change was correct but the process for doing needs to be revised. Photo: HKEJ

The Ming Pao headline switch in black and white

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily News is back in the headlines Thursday, trying to explain why management changed the newspaper’s front-page headline on July 2 to play down universal suffrage as an issue in the July 1 march. Instead, the paper highlighted overnight police action to break up a sit-in by two student organizations.

The staff union at the Chinese-language daily lashed out at management for the switch, calling it interference with press freedom. The backlash suggests rising mistrust between reporters and management and comes as the boss, Tiong Hiew King, appears keen to tighten control of editorial direction to avoid politically sensitive issues.

The news of the change was broken by the Ming Pao Staff Association on Wednesday after the July 2 edition hit the street with the headline “Hundreds rehearse Occupy Central, police clearance.” The association said the headline earlier read: “10-year high turnout for fight-for-universal-suffrage march”.

The association said the headline was changed while the presses where printing copies with the original version. It said the presses were stopped at the direction of Lui Ka-ming, the newspaper’s editorial director, but Lui had no right to order the change. The association said the move could mark the start of management intervention in the newsroom.

In Thursday’s Ming Pao, half a page was given over to the headline change issue in an article entitled: “Editors ignorant of front-page headline change” with a quote from chief editor Cheung Kin-bor saying the change was correct but the process for doing needed to be revised.

Lui also explained his view in a by-lined article.

The coverage threw up an interesting difference between the newsroom’s editorial chiefs, Chan Kam-keung and Keung Kwok-yuen, and Lui on the wording of the earlier headline.

The story revealed that Chan and Keung rejected Lui’s suggestion to remove “Fighting for universal suffrage march” and replace it with the milder “July 1 march”, insisting that various surveys showed that people turned out mainly to fight for universal suffrage. But Lui insisted using “July 1 march” in the headline because, he maintained, not all marchers were there for the vote. The final headline was changed after the police started to arrest protesters at Chater Road at 3:30 am by Lui, after the Chan and Keung had left the office.

It’s not surprising that a newspaper would change a headline to capture the latest developments of an event such as the police clearance in Central. But the Ming Pao case underscores the point that management intervention runs the risk of damaging a newspaper’s credibility and eroding readers’ trust in the publication.

Hong Kong newspapers have become tools to help the government maintain its authority in exchange for benefits for the newspapers’ owners. That’s why most led on July 2 with the police clearance as their main headline rather than the massive turnout for the march and the protesters’ determination to fight for unfettered universal suffrage.

The wording of a headline may send one message to the government and the authorities, but readers can read between the lines.

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EJ Insight writer