Irreverent farewell front pages are as much a part of journalistic culture as messy desks and bad pay.
But the new editor of the South China Morning Post, Mark Clifford, didn't see the funny side when colleagues prepared a front page for Sunday Morning Post editor Niall Fraser headlined: "You're a c**t, but you're a good c**t."
Two subs — Trevor Willison, who is British, and Australian Paul Ruffini — have been sacked over the affair. Now around 80 newsroom staffers, including many expatriate Britons, have signed a no-confidence motion in Clifford, an American who has been in charge of Hong Kong's biggest English-language daily for seven months.
Following the sacking of the two journalists — two of the paper's most experienced subs — Clifford sent an email apparently explaining the move.
He said: "The South China Morning Post name is one of our most valuable assets. Thousands of people have worked to build one of Asia's most prominent and powerful newspapers over the past century. The name symbolises quality, trust and integrity. We are a good newspaper on our way to becoming a great one. "Becoming great requires effort and thought from each of us, in everything we do. We're lucky that so many of us do our best in every aspect of our professional lives. I have been enormously impressed by the intensity, the integrity and the pursuit of excellence by so many of you that I've seen in the seven months I've been here. Unfortunately, not everyone understands what it takes for us to ratchet up to the next level. Some of this I understand. Change is hard. Newsrooms are conducive to grumbling. And excellence takes effort. "But some behaviour I cannot accept and will not tolerate. There is no room here for people who flout journalistic ethics of fairness and accuracy, no room for people who treat the company's name and property as if it were their own. And there are basic standards of decency that need to be respected in any modern company, standards that are enshrined in our code of ethics."
He added: "We must strive for excellence in everything we do in our professional lives, both inside and outside of the newsroom — every phone call, every photo, every press conference and, yes, everything we do internally."
The British journalist sacked, Willison, had been at the paper for 13 years and began his career on the Yorkshire Evening Post. A journalist for more than 40 years, he is understood to be considering his legal position.
One insider said: "The leaving page (as they usually do) included a number of digs at the management but was seen as generally pretty harmless. "What apparently upset Clifford was the use of the word c*** under the SMP masthead (with asterisks included, I should point out) and some mildy derogatory references to the newspaper's deputy editor, a Chinese woman by the name of Fanny Fung."