More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 111

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

Our presence was purely to ensure that the paper, which seemed to print between 50,000 and 60,000 copies a day, most of which were given away in hotels and airports, looked as near a Western product as possible – without transgressing the requirements laid down by the local Shanghai government, which ultimately owned and controlled the organ; although I did learn later that the Communist Party of China guaranteed the overdraft so it must have had some say in the show.

The Party line had to be rigorously observed. As foreigners, we were not allowed to write articles for the paper. Although we put up ideas for content, many were politely accepted but usually they do not see the light of day.

All the foreign experts felt abused by the management, dubbed the Gang of Three. We were never consulted or even told about developments at the paper. A decision was reached to increase the size of the paper from 12 to 20 pages after a visit by The Party Secretary, Chen Liangyu. We all turned out and stood by our desks at 8am, about eight hours ahead of schedule to facilitate the visit of the Big Man.

Of course, if we felt abused, it was even worse for the local journalists employed by the paper. They got no annual holiday – just the national holidays and few of those as the paper tended to publish on many days of national holiday. They were obliged to sign five or seven-year contracts and once those contracts were over they were barred from working for another newspaper for two years. The remuneration was decidedly poor for them – around the equivalent of $250 US a month (RMB 2000) – but this was considerably improved by the so-called ‘red envelope’ system.

Attendance at press conferences was rewarded by the organisers, before proceedings even started, with a red envelope containing 300 yuan. One enterprising and energetic reporter reckoned he could fit in three on a good day and in a good month he could make five or six times his salary on the red envelopes.

The local journalists were also given little training, having to learn their skills in the field and from the foreign experts. This sometimes had serious repercussions exemplified by lengthy printed apologies.

One such apology relating to a report quoting the sales director of the The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Shanghai acknowledged that: “Wang Kairong did not make these statements and apologises for any embarrassment the report may have caused.” Fair enough. But the last line of the apology added: “The mistake was made by a reporter.” No corporate responsibility around here, chaps.

As the so-called ‘foreign experts’, we were never actually ever told about the increase in pagination. Rumours just flew around the office. When I asked if they were true, the reply was: “Maybe”. The official confirmation of a 20-page paper came four days before it was to appear when a new work roster was published.

Ten days before the paper almost doubles in size, sixteen young Chinese are taken on as reporters. I ask management about their qualifications. “They are all experts,” I am told. “Some of them are qualified as accountants.” I say that if I wanted to get a paper written by accountants I would subscribe to Accountancy Age.

The staff of foreign experts had been reduced with Lenny, the most experienced member of the team, leaving after four years. He was told he was “too old”. He was, admittedly, 67 but he had a barrel-load of experience, from the Vietnam war to The Shanghai Daily, through papers and agencies in the US. He left the office around 11pm in early December. No gold watch. In fact, nobody from the Gang of Three even said goodbye to him after four years of service. Instead, his colleagues took him down the local press pub, Always Bar.

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