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Hong Kong Deadline, The Big Baxter, The China Mail

After the siege – the China Mail battle for hearts and minds

The first thing the China Mail’s journalists did after deciding to stage their sit-in over the closure of the newspaper was to get the news out. The job fell to Linda Siddall and Debra Jopson who rushed to contact outside media before joining their colleagues in the South China Morning Post’s production room.

It was the first move on the public relations battlefront, which my father and his fellow journalists were determined to win and where they held an immediate and obvious advantage. But they had no way of knowing whether the first shots had landed effectively as they sweltered in that glass and police lined room on that hot afternoon in August 1974. 

Management had cut the phone lines but there was still the copy chute and the strategically lingering guests from the wake in the newsroom upstairs. Scribbled notes and eventually a radio thrown down the chute gave them some idea of what was going on but it wasn’t until the siege of Tong Chong Street was over that they learned the full extent of what had been happening on the outside.

Reuter’s Phil Wardle scribbled this note and threw it down the chute from the China Mail newsroom, letting the protestors know police would not intervene.

Reuter’s Phil Wardle scribbled this note and threw it down the chute from the China Mail newsroom, letting the protestors know police would not intervene.

The next day’s newspapers – and Hong Kong had a hundred of them – were full of sympathetic coverage for the loss of one of their own.

In a front page obituary Kam Yeh Pao went with a pun – playing on the phrase ‘the paper is dead, the staff are unpaid’ to recall an idiomatic expression meaning the hero is dead and with him has died all his potential for heroic deeds.

“The old timer of English newspapers died gloriously,” reported Hong Kong Commercial Daily, observing that its last edition was bought even by those with only the slightest knowledge of English. “On its last day it became the most popular paper in Hong Kong.”

The Sin Yeh Evening News editorialised: “We are sorry to have lost a friend in the newspaper field. On behalf of the paper we extend our condolences. We deeply feel that this is a loss. Besides, we always picked up stories from the China Mail and we respect their attitude on news. They were always first with stories.”

The Sun Jeh Pao said: “It is Hong Kong’s oldest newspaper and from start to finish has always put the public first. It never had any fear for the people at the top in Hong Kong and has always tried its best to report bribery and corruption. The Mail has many distinguished merits.”

Coverage of the China Mail affair was not limited to Hong Kong as telegrams of support from overseas flooded into the Hong Kong Press Club in Wanchai which acted as campaign headquarters throughout the dispute. A telegram from the Tehran Press Club was delayed due to error of service.

telegramsIn Britain the National Union of Journalists set up a special committee to provide assistance and lobbied foreign secretary Jim Callaghan to use his influence to win fair terms for the China Mail staff.

And in Australia the Australian Journalists Association pledged cash and whatever other support it could provide to the cause and organised an urgent briefing for the Sydney Journalists Club.

With the hard work of negotiating a better deal still to come, my father Jack Spackman knew it was vital to keep the momentum of the story alive and maintain public sympathy for the China Mail staff.

“We ensured that each morning and afternoon – timed with an eye to local and international deadlines – there was a solid, accurate news angle available for the scores of reporters who were chasing the story,” he said.

The unemployed journalists put their skills to work getting reaction from civic leaders and putting the material out to every newspaper, radio and television station in town. They won statements of support from the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the Reform Club, the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee and two visiting British Labour MPs.

The Civic Association’s secretary-general Edmund Chow said: “We are very glad that the struggle is mainly for the lower paid workers. We hope that you will continue to press for better severance pay and score a victory for Hong Kong’s workers.”

Elsie Elliott (later Tu), urban councillor and long-term thorn in the side of Hong Kong’s establishment, also lent her support to the struggle. “The workers in Hong Kong have for too long been used as pawns in a game and when the game is over the pawns are thrown away,” she wrote.

“The closure of the Mail was too sudden. No one was given a chance to look for another job or to plan their future. It’s horrible. I like the way you are fighting for the junior staff.”

“There was nothing sinister in the way we used the media,” Spackman said later. “We worked hard to keep the story on page one and that was important in the final analysis.

“The management on the other hand was caught napping. The dispute had been going one week before TVB managed to get a couple of people to go before the cameras and suggest we were asking too much.”

For the most part, Spackman said, coverage from all media, including the South China Morning Post and TVB, had been even-handed, to the benefit of the China Mail cause.

“I’m not suggesting for one moment that they should ever have used their media for straight out propaganda purposes. That would be a most unhealthy situation.

“But while they were giving us an impartial coverage they were damaging their own position. We could not have complained if they had gone for a bit of what’s known in the business as ‘balance’.”

This is Part 2 in a series of articles by Your Girl Reporter on the closure of Hong Kong’s China Mail newspaper and my father Jack Spackman’s leading role in the industrial dispute which followed. Read all about it:

For more on the China Mail dispute, there’s this:

Part 1: Death of a newspaper, birth of a movement

Part 3: After the siege: A fair go for Hong Kong’s China Mail

Part 4: After the siege: China Mail job hunt tough for some

The China Mail’s finest hour:

In a corrupt town the dirty cop is king: remembering Peter Godber

More Jack Spackman:

A Matter of Dignity

Correcting the record

Suzie doesn’t live here anymore – the night old Wanchai died

This article is part of a continuing series on 1970s Hong Kong, as remembered by Your Girl Reporter who was lucky enough to be growing up in the small and boisterous community of its journalists. You can find more of these articles here 

© Sally Baxter 2014
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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