In this episode, our Senior Partner Colin Cohen speaks with South China Morning Post columnist Cliff Buddle. Having been with the Post for 27 years, Cliff is ideally positioned to offer his thoughts about the newspaper’s adjustment to the digital age, the challenges posed by social media and how he and his colleagues have covered major news stories, including the 2019 protests and the coronavirus pandemic.
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Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter
[00:00:40] Colin Cohen: Cliff, Welcome to Law & More.
[00:00:42] Cliff Buddle: Thank you.
[00:00:43] Colin Cohen: Tell me what's been keeping you a little busy this week?
[00:00:46] Cliff Buddle: This week, I'd be doing a bit of research into the history of the South China morning post. So that is one of my mini-projects at the moment.
[00:00:54] Colin Cohen: And before we go into these sort of weighty matters, such as what you're doing with the South China Morning Post, the history, the media landscape in Hong Kong. Let's go back in time and look at your early career and how you got started in journalism. You were a court reporter at the Old Bailey in London for the various agencies. What are your memories of those days? And anything of great interest, notable cases?
[00:01:19] Cliff Buddle: Well what happened is that I decided that I wanted to be a journalist when I was at school in London. But I wanted to be a sports reporter, I had this idea I would be covering Arsenal The problem is you needed to have a foot in the door right. At that time, particularly, experience counted for more than qualifications. And the first job that came along was at the Old Bailey, and I knew nothing about the law nothing about courts. I went along as a rather green 17 18-year-old. And I had my interview in the press room there which was next to the cells and after the interview, they took me upstairs and they put me in court number one. Which anyone who's been to court number one at the Old Bailey knows that an awe-inspiring historic court. And there was a murder trial going on and they just sat me down with a notebook and a pen. The defendant was giving evidence and they said well let's see how And then the next day, taken down to Clark and Well Magistrate's Court. There happened to be a good story there that day and I ended up with two paragraphs in The Daily Telegraph. And that was it I was hooked, I just found it so exciting as a young journalist covering those cases in the 80s and 90s.
[00:02:31] Colin Cohen: I remember when I was a trainee solicitor going into the Old Bailey's, we were doing a fraud case in court number one and the facilities are terrible. Acoustics are not great. And you sit there and you feel something there. Everyone as you said, are overpowered by that fabulous courtroom. You've got to imagine one of the judges putting on the black cloth and hanging... Well anyway, you enjoyed your career but what brought you to Hong Kong, how did you arrive on these shores? And I think it was 93? 94.
[00:03:01] Cliff Buddle: 94, 94, well I'd been at the Old Bailey for 12 years and I was looking for a challenge it was my 30th birthday and my wife as she is now said to me how does it feel to be 30? And I said well I feel that something has to change. I didn't mean her, I meant something else. I had a call from a journalist on the evening standard who said the South China Morning Post was looking for a court reporter and maybe I would be interested. I didn't really know where Hong Kong was at the time I had to go and look it up but this was the sort of adventure I was looking for. I got the job and I came out with a suitcase, never been here before, dropped it off at the hotel went into the newsroom And I've been there ever since.
[00:03:43] Colin Cohen: And what was your first task?
[00:03:5] Cliff Buddle: I was hired as the district court reporter, it doesn't sound very glamorous. But for me being in Hong Kong, tiny new experience, obviously the courts were somewhat familiar the wigs and the gowns and similarities with what I had seen in the UK. But there were also differences, so I was starting out at the district court and coming from a very competitive environment in London I was really looking to Milk those district court cases for everything I could get out of them And I was looking for front-page stories from the district court.
[00:04:16] Colin Cohen: Anything that stands out in the district court at that time or, there were a couple of cases I remember the district court in that time, there's some fraud cases and other ones.
[00:04:26] Cliff Buddle: Well when I think back I'm just trying to remember I was only at the district court for three months before I moved to the high court. It's not so much the cases themselves I remember as the environment. I found that the legal profession in Hong Kong was much nicer to journalists than in London. In London, there were some very nice ones they're very friendly but they were a little standoffish. I was rather surprised when I arrived at the district court, I was going into one of the courts in the afternoon and some of my colleagues in the Chinese language press said this judge, she will invite you into her chambers after the hearing. And I said, don't be silly judges don't do that, they don't invite the media into their chambers when the court adjourned. But they were right, the clerk of the court came over to the press bench when the court rose and said, the judge would like to see me I just arrived from the UK and I went in to see the judge and we had a very nice chat just talking about Hong Kong and what it was like and would it be like in London. I really welcomed that and I found that the lawyers here were much more willing to engage with the media which was nice.
[00:05:30] Colin Cohen: Cause I recollect at that time the SCMP had an actual court page whereby you go to that page and you read all the cases.
[00:05:38] Cliff Buddle: Yes I got it abolished.
[00:05:40] Colin Cohen: Was there any reason why?
[00:05:44] Cliff Buddle: Yeah, I felt it was a little old fashioned. I know that it was popular with some members of the legal profession, I mean we used to have case numbers and this sort of thing, but from the perspective of a journalist, I felt that this was artificial. I felt that the court stories are good stories, and they should compete with other news stories for the more prominent parts of the news. And if you have one page dedicated to the court stories and you have a quiet day and so you have to publish stories which are rather weak to fill the space on that page if you have a busy day then you lose some good stories or you have good stories that go on that page when they really should be on page one or page three so I wanted those stories to be able to compete in their own rather than having a dedicated page.
[00:06:29] Colin Cohen: So you were here, you were part of the team, or you were the chief court reporter. And we're coming up to 1997 and after 97. There were lots of constitutional cases. Does anything stand out that you were reporting on in those difficult times during the handover?
[00:06:46] Cliff Buddle: For me, the handover itself wasn't the real story as somebody who was in the courts covering legal affairs I felt that was more of a colour story. I mean I stood out and got very wet trying to cover the meeting between Tony Blair and Jiang Zemin on handover night. The real story I feel came later on In the cases that followed the handover and the use to which the basic law was put. Basic Law of course didn't come into force until the handover and we very quickly started to see people going to court and relying on the protection that the basic law provides for human rights. The right of abode cases really were landmark for me in seeing the way in which the law could be used to defend people's rights. And I will never forget the Court of Final Appeal ruling in January 1999. The first ruling on the basic law on the right of abode which proved to be very controversial but it was a historic ruling. You saw the courts trying to lay down some of its own boundaries to clear up some of the issues that had caused concern this was a very exciting time to be a court reporter.
[00:07:55] Colin Cohen: I also remembered in the South China Morning Post used to report the privy council cases, quite a lot. And then The Court of Final Appeal came in and you've seen the courts in the privy council and the Court of Final Appeal. Your views on the courts, has it performed, the unusual aspect of a single judge from overseas and dealing with a Court of Final Appeal.
[00:08:15] Cliff Buddle: I think we have seen some at times quite courageous judgments from the Court of Final Appeal. one of the objectives I know talking to Andrew Lee the chief justice at the time, it was for that court to establish itself as a court of quality a court that would be recognized in the common law that would make judgments that would be referred to elsewhere in the common law world. And I think that it was achieved and the foreign judges, the overseas judges have an important part to play in that. I mean, of course, we can all debate where the judgment should have gone this way or that way and whether we're happy with them or disappointed with them. But I think on the whole given that this was a new court, an unusual court given the presence of the overseas judge. So I think it has played a very significant role in developing Hong Kong jurisprudence since the handover.
[00:09:06] Colin Cohen: You've had a number of roles at the South China Post, you're no longer a court reporter. When did you stop, what made you change from court reporter? What happened 'cause you acting chief editor at some time as well.
[00:09:18] Cliff Buddle: Yeah, I've worn a number of different hats. Well if you include my time in London I was a court reporter for 18 years. So when an opportunity came along to do something different, I felt I should take it and I was offered the chance to move to what was called the focus section back in those days. We have a focus page these days in the newspaper which is a bit different but this was a section which included articles on the big issues of the day. So that was my move out of court reporting opportunity to try something different. And I went from that to be a news editor, the news editor during SARS And then on, spent a couple of years writing editorials which very much enjoyed and still do from time to time. Then as deputy editor for six years, I had almost a year as acting editor in chief, which was quite an experience. And I've been special projects editor now for, wow, what is it Nine years. Which is a title of which it doesn't mean very much but the great thing about it is that you can do many different things without having to change your title again so you're in that time I looked after the culture team, I represent the SCMP at the FCC. I do a bit of emceeing, write my column, chip in with editorials. Look after graduate trainees so a number of different roles to play as a senior editor.
[00:10:34] Colin Cohen: Let me talk about some aspects of the press. The digital revolution, I call it that, I think has a massive impact on the newspaper industry. And has it been difficult for the SCMP to adapt and survive because I read the times every day now IPad I subscribed to the SCMP and I read it on my phone but really, I enjoyed the piece of paper in my hand as well. Has it had this impact on the industry the digital revolution or not?
[00:11:02] Cliff Buddle: Oh very much so, it's been a huge challenge for the media industry which has been transformed as a result of the internet and social media and the many different platforms now available for publishing. At the SCMP we had a website up in 1996 pretty early. I remember filing stories to scmp.com in the nineties when the website was launched. But it's taken us about 20 years to make the most of it really and it's only in recent years that we have seen A complete transformation in the way in which we go about news gathering and publishing of news distributing of news. Now we have gone from being a very traditional Hong Kong newspaper read almost exclusively by Hong Kong people to be a modern digital media organization that is read all around the world.
[00:11:52] Colin Cohen: And that's the model everyone is following. It's amazing nowadays, I pay for my print subscription I also pay for my digital, extra 700 800 bucks on top of 2,500 I think that's what I pay And it means that straight away you get on your phone, the latest breaking news Carrie says this, this is happening, court decisions are coming down, it's a continuous feed of news coming into you all the time This has been the new era we're in. Has that had an impact on, does that make you profitable, the SCMP. Is the SCMP's head above the water at the moment?
[00:12:26] Cliff Buddle: Oh, our heads above the water certainly. But we've gone through a process of new owners Alibaba who invested in the newsroom we saw the newsroom growth we saw bureau opening in the US and elsewhere. The paywall came down for a number of years which meant that we were able to really grow our readership, it's back in place again now. I've seen the South China Morning Post undergo this transformation from being in some ways quite an old fashioned orientated newsroom to one which is really making use of all the tools that are available to us these days to distribute down our news and ultimately to make some money and keep our head above water.
[00:13:07] Colin Cohen: I'm interested also in how you cope with social media. social media now is everywhere. Facebook LinkedIn whatever it is, it affects every single person. And it's a source for news in itself How do you think that impacts upon true journalists. Journalists going out digging answering questions doing their searches company searches. Have you managed to cope with that aspect?
[00:13:32] Cliff Buddle: Oh well social media, it's another tool, it's a way of gathering information of course, so very useful tool in that way as well as in distributing news. Social media of course has been a great challenge to the media industry, but I think we're just beginning to see people returning to mainstream media organizations looking for trusted sources of news. That's what we try to do at the SCMP is to provide news that is substantiated, and can be relied upon so much information out there, lots of misinformation, disinformation, so very important that the media is able to provide trusted sources of news.
[00:14:12] Colin Cohen: That's interesting, now turning a little bit back to your interest in law, I note that you got a master's degree in human rights law from the University of Hong Kong in 2005. You're also an honorary lecturer at Hong Kong News Journalism and Media Studies. You do go into a little bit of academia. Do you ever have any aspirations of putting that wig on your head or becoming an academic in this area?
[00:15:06] Cliff Buddle: Well it has been suggested to me and I have thought seriously about it in the past. But at heart, I've always been a journalist. What prompted the legal studies was really as a journalist I wanted to be able to talk to lawyers on their own terms. I didn't want Lawyers to be able to pull the wool over my eyes by resorting to legal jargon, I wanted to have a good understanding, understanding of the law and I didn't go to university in the UK I had a place I gave it up because I got the job at the Old Bailey. So it was quite a thrill for me to go to Hong Kong U and to start studying law and it did come in very useful I remember interviewing a government lawyer, he started talking about Pepper and Hart, and I knew all about Pepper and Hart because I'd studied it. And so that was exactly the sort of benefit I was hoping for was being able to sort of come back when...
[00:15:29] Colin Cohen: Yeah our Listeners, Pepper and Hart was a very famous case in how to interpret statutes the intent and the literal meaning or not the literal meaning and what you can use. So that's good, so you're able to enjoy yourself doing that. Now I read your weekly column and you seem to be a passionate advocate of the rule of law. And each week Sunday mornings, that's the first thing I go to and headlines are article 23 must not restrict the rights unnecessarily. You wrote about Nobel peace prize highlights the importance of press freedom. You have a wonderful headline, Carrie Lam's policy address needs to show the qualities of a leader, a time of change is instructed to reflect on the past. Last week's headline, uplifting the marathon reflects the true spirits of Hong Kong, and you were writing quite robustly, your views are, I would say, interesting and different what are you up to, what brought you into doing this?
[00:16:24] Cliff Buddle: Well I've had a weekly column for, it's coming up for a year now, and that's quite a discipline. I mean you've got to come up with something each week to write about I try in that column to express myself in a rational and reasonable way. I think these days, and you've talked about social media, we get a lot of extreme views. And I stand up for what I believe one country two systems should be, and that includes Hong Kong protecting human rights, having a robust media, being an international city, having an independent judiciary, upholding the rule of law in the true sense of the rule of law, which again brings us back to protecting our rights. So I'm expressing my views freely as I have done for many years.
[00:17:12] Colin Cohen: To be there setting out the views to protect people's rights as well. And you are a staunch defender of press freedom. You've written about that a lot, you've always said that. And are you concerned about press freedom here in Hong Kong?
[00:17:26] Cliff Buddle: Yes, in a word I think the environment in Hong Kong, the political environment we know has changed since the introduction of the National Security law. We also hear officials talking about a fake news law being on the way. We have more National Security Laws under Article 23, which may affect the media. We're seeing Access to government databases tightened up, which makes it more difficult for journalists to do their job. So there are concerns and Hong Kong, all the time that I've been here has had a very robust media scene, I think it continues to do so and long may that be the case. I mean we have been, as I said in my column, a beacon for press freedom in this part of the world in Asia. And it's very important that journalists are allowed to continue to get on with their job.
[00:18:17] Colin Cohen: And during the 2019 protests or troubles as people call it. What was it like for the Morning Post, and were there any particular difficulties that your team had in covering the disturbances and reporting honestly and openly?
[00:18:31] Cliff Buddle: It was very labour intensive I think particularly for our local news team and credit to them these events develop quickly. Our journalists were working in very challenging, sometimes dangerous, circumstances. Working very long hours and it's really a credit to them I think that we were able to provide our leaders with very up-to-date information on these fast-moving events One of the things that we did was to have a live blog which traditional reporting was very difficult because things were moving so quickly. And in many different parts of Hong Kong, the fastest way of conveying these developments to readers was in the form of a live blog And that was very popular. Seemed to be well received. And so far as the political divisions in Hong Kong, I mean now our job is not to be swayed by politics one way or the other. We try to be objective and fair and during the course of those difficult times, we were variously accused of being yellow or being blue both at the same time which suggests to me we were probably doing the right thing.
[00:19:40] Colin Cohen: The Foreign Correspondents Club, I know it's very dear to your heart, the first club you probably joined when you arrived in Hong Kong. You're a governor, and for our listeners, that means a director on the board. I believe the FCC is very important and it faced some issues not so long ago during the aftermath of the disturbances. Tell us a little bit about your role on the FCC and how that helps you in your position with the SCMP.
[00:20:05] Cliff Buddle: I'm a journalist governor which means I sit on the board it means I get to spend some time at the club which is great because the club first and foremost is a fine place to go for a glass of wine or for something to eat perhaps a nice curry to meet people, meet interesting people. And so at that same time, I always see it as a home from home for our members. A place where journalists can go and work. But the FCC is more than just a location for eating and drinking, of course. It has an important role to play in Hong Kong in speaking up for press freedom and for the profession of journalism supporting journalists. And also in providing a platform for debate of issues that are important to Hong Kong and to the region. it's been very difficult during the pandemic of course when we couldn't have our usual live events And so we went online and we were doing it through zoom we had panellists and guests so we managed to keep those debates going but thankfully now we are back with live events too. And we are a platform for many different views, anyone who comes to speak, we've recently had Regina Ip for example, Cheng Huan recently, yeah they can be expected to be subjected to some tough questioning from our members Cheng Huan said he was told that he would be eaten for lunch I think you've either enjoyed his lunch actually but...
[00:21:25] Colin Cohen: Well I always enjoy the lunches, and now they're back on is actually very very difficult to get a place, because it's so popular with your members. Anyway, you mentioned COVID 19 the pandemic Is there any frustration within your newspaper within your fellow journalists as to the government's strategy Or is there general support for the zero COVID help, what's your views on that I've been blogging about that a little bit.
[00:21:48] Cliff Buddle: My personal views have changed as the pandemic has sort of taken hold and evolved initially when I first heard about this I remember one of the senior editors dashing across the newsroom and saying there was a SARS-like illness in Wu Han and immediately thinking, oh no here we go again because I was here during SARS. So at first, I thought this was going to be like SARS all over again, where there would be a high death rate and where things would be very tough for a few months but then it would burn out and go away. Of course, it hasn't turned out like that at all. So initially I think we needed to adopt a cautious approach and I watched events in the UK with some alarm in the early days. And yet we were here in Hong Kong with our mask and being very careful and sort of shaking our heads at that time. But I think things have changed now we know a little more about COVID with the vaccinations. And I feel frustrated by the zero case approach, I haven't been out of Hong Kong since 2019. Don't know when I will next my youngest son who is studying in the UK so I feel now in Hong Kong we are too risk-averse in tackling the pandemic. And I understand that the objective now is opening the border with the mainland, and in order to do that there are requirements that have to be met but I wonder about Hong Kong's role as an international city international travel I think we have to take care of that as well.
[00:23:13] Colin Cohen: On a lighter note, I know you took part in last week's Hong Kong Marathon, you did the 10K. How was that experience?
[00:23:21] Cliff Buddle: It was great It was great.
[00:23:22] Colin Cohen: Finished? Time?
[00:23:25] Cliff Buddle: Time was 51:07.
[00:23:26] Colin Cohen: Respectable.
[00:23:27] Cliff Buddle: Yeah so it's a bit off my personal best, but it's October, it was quite warm, the sun came out I was nursing a calf injury so I was glad just to finish. I particularly wanted to run this time in the past the 10-kilometre race has been on the Eastern Island Corridor. Which I always enjoy it's very early in the morning but this time we got to run through the Western Harbor Tunnel, ran along the Harbor Side through Central all the way to Victoria Park. And the atmosphere was really great I mean it was a joy to be part of a mass event like that again.
[00:24:00] Colin Cohen: Well that's great, and of course you had mentioned before you are a keen football follower, arsenal fan. I'll let you get away with that, are you still playing football?
[00:24:08] Cliff Buddle: Sadly not, I reached a stage where I did a lap of honour if I got through 90 minutes without getting injured. So running is a little easier in that regard, but I've never formally hung up my boots, maybe I should dust them off and turn out.
[00:24:23] Colin Cohen: Cause I refereed the football here as well. You mentioned you got your teenage sons and you've been in Hong Kong for 27 years. Now do you see a long-term future here, this is your home?
[00:24:34] Cliff Buddle: I've never actually seen my long-term future here. I've been here 27 years, like most people I thought I would be here for a couple of years and Hong Kong has been wonderful, offered great opportunities, and I'm still here and still here for the foreseeable future.
[00:24:51] Colin Cohen: That's Good And your thoughts on Hong Kong's future, our city is changing, are you optimistic? Does that have an impact upon you at all?
[00:24:59] Cliff Buddle: I've always been optimistic about Hong Kong, but I am troubled by the events of the last two years and the direction Hong Kong is now taking. I think one country two systems, the two systems part is clearly very important. Hong Kong is a vibrant, open, international city, and it's very important that continues. Clearly, we have been through some extraordinary times with the protest in 2019 the national security law, an optimistic view perhaps is that maybe this will settle down and perhaps we can get back to times which are a little less politically sensitive, there doesn't seem to be much sign of that at the moment. But longer-term I do have some concerns about whether Hong Kong is going to retain that special quality as a special part of China which makes it different to the mainland.
[00:25:51] Colin Cohen: Cliff thank you so much for being our guest on Law & More. It's been a great pleasure chatting with you.
[00:25:58] Cliff Buddle: Thank you very much, pleasure.