More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 112

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

With a much-reduced staff we were faced with a 20-page paper. A new boy, fresh out of Yale with no journalistic experience, has arrived but leaves for a family holiday in Hawaii just before we go to 20 pages. An old hand, Lancy, returns to India to be with his family for three weeks. And then, on the evening of December 29 I am told my services are no longer required, effective from January 19.

Enigmatically, I am told that the paper is engaging “more experienced” people. There is no criticism of my work as such, just that there are simply more proficient people coming along.

This is puzzling: the paper has just engaged a boy straight from Yale with no experience whatsoever. His training and expertise is as a sculptor. It would appear that my 35 years as an editor, writer and publisher are not required. I had re-applied in writing for another year’s contract on October 24 – as it happened the day before my wedding to a Chinese woman in Shanghai – and three months before the expiry of my contract.

After more than two months, I am told to be ‘on my bike’ in just over three weeks. I am replaced by an American journalist who imports his wife and three children into the country as well. He will last six months on the paper.

I had kept my ‘nose fairly clean’ in Shanghai but I maybe stepped over the line a couple of times.

Shortly before I left England, I had lunch in a pub in the East End of London with a colleague in the intelligence field. I had severed my links with Janes by this time and he asked me to write an analysis of the Chinese military and its role in Chinese society for a competing organ, The Yearbook of the Global Defence Review.

I duly wrote three thousand words or so, eight or nine months later. In fact, it was extremely complimentary to the cohesion of the Chinese state but I guess it did not go without notice and was hardly approved of.

After the SARS debacle, I also wrote a piece about the role of the Chinese military in the crisis for Colonel (retired) Mike Dewar who ran The Officer magazine in London. Again, it was approving in tone but, probably, a tad too revelatory.

Also, around this time, I would become aware of the activities of US Special Forces (Delta Force) in Xinjiang, northern China, in the search for Osama bin Laden. I began to notice that my emails had stopped arriving in an uninterrupted stream: the day’s emails would all arrive at one time in the early hours of every morning. They were being monitored.

I had, of course, not made myself particularly popular, as usual. I had been critical of editorial policy at The Shanghai Daily ever since I started. Whether it has been news priorities or headlines, I have always felt the need to strive for excellence.

SARS struck within weeks of arriving in Shanghai. At the end of the first week in February, the first rumours of a pneumonia-type viral infection in Guangdong province emerged at the afternoon editorial conference. Local authorities there were denying it, although rumours would persist in the ensuing weeks. Most days at conference I asked if we would go with the story. But the Gang of Three kept saying ‘the time is not right’.

One evening, the news editor announced that two million SMS messages had been sent in the last 24 hours, mainly down in Guangdong, reporting deaths and hospitalisation from the disease. A few days later, we published on the front page of the paper an item reporting the authorities in Beijing had made it an offence punishable by death to spread alarm and false rumour by cellphone . . .