More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 110

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is to be published March 1 next year, by Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow, and available from

Headlines are a problem at the paper. After I have subbed copy, I write a headline. A local Chinese editor then sometimes rewrites it. On the page, I then explain, if it is wrong, why and then we change it back. Then a proof-reader (Chinese) looks at it and maybe changes it again. I go back to the page on the computer screen and maybe change it again. But it’s after I leave the office that the real damage is frequently done. One of the chief editors goes back to the carefully prepared page and wreaks havoc.

The worst example occurred towards the end of my time with the paper. A famous Hong Kong female singer had tragically died. Everybody was upset and it was big news. I got the headline to fit neatly with the respectful phrase, ‘to be laid to rest today’. Al Campbell, a Canadian foreign expert on the paper, came up with the headline HONG KONG’S MADONNA DIES and I got a nice, respectful deck in underneath ANITA MUI TO BE LAID TO REST TODAY.

The chief editor set about it after I left the office. When I picked up the paper the next morning, I read ‘Anita Mui to be Laid Today’.

I felt obliged to make an issue of this in editorial conference. That did not go down well and I was told I had caused the chief editor to ‘lose face’. I know many British newspaper editors who would have dealt with the matter rather more forcefully.

Al once got a punch in the ribs for protesting a change to his headline to the backroom minions.

In an AP story revealing that America and the CIA was behind the domino fall of South American leaders in the 1960s, he wrote the headline: ‘LBJ Behind South America’s Dirty War’. Satisfied that the headline fitted, when Campbell came back later he noticed it had been changed. He was told: “LBJ was not an important president, nobody knows him.”

When someone stepped in to separate the two, the Canadian was sucker-punched. Al had nearly a decade of experience at the top-notch South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong. His pay was promptly frozen for the next three-and-a-half years.

I sometimes wondered why they ever bothered employing us foreign experts at all, our headlines and rewrites were so heinously tampered with. We were never asked for our advice except in relation to specific stories we were working on. Any advice we did give on wider issues was clearly regarded as gratuitous. In the first few months I made suggestions for features, layout and additions to the paper. Polite acknowledgement was made but nothing was ever taken further.

But I did manage to sneak in, from time to time, more imaginative headlines. One of my best, I thought, was in my second week, dealing with legislation to curb the powers of Sweden’s aristocratic upper chamber: ‘Nobles Nobbled in Nordic Privilege Purge’.

I suppose we were a pretty bizarre bunch and our Chinese bosses were forever terrified we were going to prejudice them with the party machine, deliberately or by accident.

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