It's not every day that a journalist gets to shout "stop the presses". I have fantasised about it often. Ming Pao's editorial director, Lui Ka-ming, did just that over the Chinese-language paper's front page coverage of the massive July 1 rally. Poor guy, the decision drew flak from many directions, not least from the paper's own staff association; and he stayed past 5am for that! I don't envy him.
If nothing else, the guy is hard-working. Where else would you find in this business an editorial director who stayed so late? Many senior people I know would have left by early dinner. Still, did Lui make the right call, which has led to accusations of editorial interference?
The original headline was pretty much like everyone's: "Rally for universal suffrage reached a 10-year high", with the sub-headline "Several hundred launched Occupy Central trial run; police ready to clear area".
The presses started running. But after 3.20am, Lui received reports that police had moved in and started removing protesters. With almost 40 years in the business, he believes the latest news is always the hottest, or so he wrote in Ming Pao yesterday to explain his action. The presses were stopped at 3.45am. The new headline became: "Hundreds in Occupy Central trial run; police started operation to clear area". The new sub-headline was: "July 1 rally - number [of participants] reached a 10-year high". The main report also incorporated some new material on the latest police operation. It must be added that a few Chinese papers with late printing deadlines also got that into their reports.
The new headline made no reference to suffrage, because Lui said many people took part in the rally for different reasons. Occupy Central protesters and police took centre stage instead of the rally's massive turnout. Lui went home and only told chief editor Cheung Kin-bor about it after 7.30am. Cheung agreed with him.
The staff association was furious, though, and issued a reprimand. It said editorial staff worried it could set a bad precedent and that "an invisible hand" may be interfering. I am inclined to side with Lui. After all, everyone had left the office. But it's a perfect case study for journalism schools and those worried about press freedom.