Three prominent British journalists who have written for the South China Morning Post for nearly 40 years combined will be deprived of their regular op-ed columns starting next month.
Philip Bowring, Kevin Rafferty and Stephen Vines, long-time city residents who together have more than 100 years of journalistic experience, received a formal termination notice last week.
One of them confirmed receipt of the letter but was puzzled because he was told the termination was “not because of what they wrote”.
The three vintage columnists accumulated many fans among expatriates and locals because of the depth of their experience observing the politics and economics of the region.
Bowring was editor of the widely respected but now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, which famously crossed swords with Singapore’s autocratic leader Lee Kuan Yew.
The prodigiously prolific Rafferty was in charge of the Asian coverage of the Financial Times and opened the newspaper’s office in Hong Kong, its first in Asia. He now writes from Japan, where he is a professor at Osaka University.
Vines, a former Guardian bureau chief and editor of Hong Kong’s Eastern Express, now defunct, is a popular current affairs commentator. His SCMP columns on Occupy Central won a merit award for English commentary at the Human Rights Press Awards this month.
The trio’s pending departure comes at a time when press freedom in Hong Kong has hit a new low, as perceived by both public and journalists — which the Hong Kong Journalists Association, a co-organizer of the awards, views as a matter of great concern.
“This is alarming,” said a former SCMP staffer who has been a reader for 30 years, “because the government has laid a heavy hand on the media and can’t stand any opposition voice.”
We ran a quick search using the SCMP’s own online search tools and found that Vines ran six pieces on Occupy Central, while Bowring had two. There were none from Rafferty, who usually focuses on Asian economies.
Bowring, 72, has had a twice-weekly column in SCMP for over 20 years. The husband of legislator Claudia Mo Man-ching has lived in Asia since 1973.
Vines, who moonlights in the restaurant business, has been a contributor for 10 years, and Rafferty for nine.
The SCMP recently terminated its 32-year-old Lai See column, written by Howard Winn, and consigned Tom Holland’s widely respected Monitor column to the scrap heap last year when Holland left for greener pastures.
UPDATED May 26
A SCMP representative eventually replied to EJ Insight on May 26 in an email that “the accusations of our existing Op-Ed contributors being terminated are groundless.
“The letter we sent to our Op-Ed contributors was to inform them of the Op-Ed content revamp we will be putting in place. This letter is not a termination letter.”
The newspaper said the Op-Ed contributors are its valued partners.
“We continue to welcome them to contribute to the South China Morning Post.”
“The review of the Op-Ed page is to diversify and deepen the scope of our Op-Ed content. This move is consistent with SCMP’s drive to identify and implement ways to strengthen our content constantly.”
One of the columnists told EJ Insight he had, in fact, been told that he can no longer count on a regular column in the SCMP from next month.
However, the paper told him, he may submit occasional pieces that it will consider for publication on a case-by-case basis.
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