I normally rely on Twitter to keep me up to date on developments in journalism round the world but, reliable as this normally is as a quick check on what’s happening, I missed two watershed moments in the east. One retirement and one appointment.
The retirement was of the editor of The Hindu who had always styled himself N. Ram. Narasimhan Ram is 67, so his retirement was hardly a surprise. But he has been so closely identified with The Hindu’s stubborn qualities for so long that it would be natural if readers worried about the future direction of the paper. Dubious as I am about much of its political philosophy (Ram, like many of his generation, flirted with communism when young), The Hindu stands out as a newspaper which cares about quality. I was in India last year when the newspaper began publishing the American diplomatic cables passed to Wikileaks. I can’t share Ram’s reverential attitude to Julian Assange, but his paper’s handling of the Wikileaks material was exemplary both for its journalistic care and political impact. Those disclosures still reverberate in Delhi today.
But The Hindu’s business is under pressure: while India is one of the largest countries in the world where newspaper circulations are still rising, those are not the circulations of the English-language titles but of the Indian-language papers. Business pressures have been part of the complex intrigue which has been played out at the group’s headquarters in Chennai (for a flavour of the passions aroused see here and here). I can’t pretend to explain the ins and outs of this internecine family/corporate struggle. So I hope that Ram has handed over to successors who will preserve his legacy. The Hindu is an important benchmark of what Indian journalists can achieve in print.
Further east, another famous English-language paper has appointed a new editor. The new editor of the South China Morning Post, Wang Xiangwei, is the first mainlander to hold the job. The blogs are alive with speculation that this appointment marks the moment that the Chinese authorities have got this once-respected paper under control. Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s independent Chinese tabloid, said that the SCMP had “gone red”.
That’s possible, and there will be no shortage of armchair critics (many of them journalists who have left the SCMP) waiting to examine with a microscope every editorial move the new editor makes. But judgements about journalistic “independence” can’t be made in China as they might be about papers in Chennai or the Czech Republic. Editors in the People’s Republic navigate and negotiate in a unmarked grey zone which lies between “black” (absolutely forbidden to mention: Tiananmen Square massacre, corruption at the top) and “white” (safely uncontroversial). And one of the SCMP’s missions has always been to explain what is happening in Beijing to Hong Kong. Who’s to say that a mainlander is going to be easier to outmanoeuvre or intimidate than someone from Hong Kong?
Wang Xiangwei has been on the SCMP for a long time. At least some people who have worked with him think he’s serious and smart. A newspaper which has had ten editors in the last eleven years might need someone like that. The test is what the new editor does, not where he was born.