Date
22 February 2018
A still image from Steven Spielberg's movie The Post, starring Meryl Streep as newspaper heiress Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as executive editor Ben Bradlee. Photo: 20th Century Fox
A still image from Steven Spielberg's movie The Post, starring Meryl Streep as newspaper heiress Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as executive editor Ben Bradlee. Photo: 20th Century Fox

In search of a Katharine Graham in Hong Kong

Oscar-nominated movie The Post came just in time to remind us that the role of the press is to “serve the governed, not the governors”.

Watching the US political thriller, I couldn’t help but think how Hong Kong’s media industry could do with a Katharine Graham-like figure in the current times.

Graham, who was publisher of the Washington Post during the 1960s and 70s, became a media legend during her time after taking the reins of the group following her husband’s death in 1963.

She made a name in modern journalism because she defied the Nixon administration and insisted on running stories based on the so-called Pentagon Papers that exposed the government’s lies in relation to the Vietnam War.

Graham also supported investigative reporting that led to the unveiling of the Watergate conspiracy, which ultimately led to President Richard Nixon quitting office in disgrace.

As publisher of Washington’s top newspaper, Graham showed enormous courage and took many risks in backing her editors and reporters, keeping the focus on serving the reader, not the political leadership. 

The newspaper that she helmed with great distinction is now in the control of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos following a sale by her successor in 2013. Graham died in 2001 at the age of 84.

In Hong Kong, we’ve seen our top English newspaper — the South China Morning Post — also change hands to an e-commerce tycoon — Jack Ma of Alibaba Group.

But beyond that, we can’t draw much parallel to Washington’s hometown paper, if we are to talk about editorial courage or leadership in recent times.  

In the local media industry, I was lucky enough to have worked under three female owners. Two of them were under 30 years in age when they took the helm.

Overall, female bosses were, and still are, something of a rarity in Hong Kong’s print media business.

The first female boss I worked under was Sally Aw, who took Singtao to the world and embraced Chinese readers overseas.

My first job was at Singtao Toronto and the offer came three months before my graduation. I got a break as the paper was somewhat desperate at that time as new rival had hired most of their existing reporters.

I am still thankful for the opportunity, a feeling also shared by many others, given that the paper’s North American operation provided careers and helped a lot of people raise families over there.

In her heydays, Aw ran three Chinese titles and all were profitable. Her track record measured her up against Katharine Graham in many ways, but she bet and lost money on stock futures, which led to some troubles.

Apart from Aw, I briefly crossed paths with two other female media bosses — Lam Joy Shan, daughter of the founding family of the Hong Kong Economic Journal; and Hui Kuok, daughter of tycoon Robert Kuok, the erstwhile owner of SCMP.

They were both elegant and educated but unfortunately a bit too young to run a serious paper. They are both happily married with kids. Kuok is now chairlady of Shangri-la.

I don’t know if I’ll bump into more female bosses as a media person, but if there is someone I would like to see in the current Trump and Xi era, it has to be someone like Graham.

– Contact us at [email protected]

RC

EJ Insight writer

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe