In an unprecedented action, an estimated 80-plus newsroom staffers on the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s largest English language newspaper, have signed what amounts to a no-confidence vote in their editor-in-chief Mark Clifford, after he fired two senior editors for their small roles in a mock front page farewell gift for another editor whom Clifford had fired.

The incident, which began as a traditional office ritual for a departing employee, has uncovered a sharp divide in the newsroom of one of Asia’s oldest newspapers, essentially pitting a new chief editor against many of the paper’s long-time employees.

“Leaving pages” as British-oriented journalists call them, are a tradition in Western journalism across the globe, typically a gentle satiric poke full of inside jokes delivered at the exiting employee’s expense during a farewell office party.

In the case of former Sunday Morning Post editor Niall Fraser, a Scotsman given to the kind of colourful language common in many newsrooms, it was the headline “You’re a c**t, but you’re a good c**t” (written with the asterisks intact on the mock page) that drew Clifford’s wrath when he happened upon a copy of the fake page in the SCMP newsroom following Fraser’s departure.

“Clifford took great exception to the use of the language,” said one of five SCMP employees who agreed to talk anonymously about the incident. “He went on a witch hunt, and looked at the page’s history [on the SCMP computer system] and called in every single person who had touched the page, about ten, and with the head of Human Resources sitting beside him, told them that it was totally offensive to the women in the office and would not be tolerated.”

After sacking the two employees on Friday for their role in the mock page, Clifford sent an email to the editorial staff which provoked “fury”, according to a source and led directly to the petition, which will be sent to the Post’s owners.

“If we at the South China Morning Post are to keep society’s trust, to keep our reader’s belief in our quality and integrity, we must ensure that what we do meets those expectations. We must strive for excellence in everything we do in our professional lives, both inside and outside of the news room every phone call, every photo, every press conference and, yes, everything we do internally,” Clifford wrote in the email.

One long-time staffer with more than ten years of experience with the SCMP called Clifford’s email “insulting” and “disgusting.”

The feelings were obviously shared by many newsroom employees and what resulted was blowback in the form of a restrained petition to SCMP chairman Kuok Khoon Ean, with a cc to Clifford, asking for Willison and Ruffini to be reinstated.

It was quickly written and circulated over the weekend with delivery scheduled for Monday. As of Sunday, between 65 and 80 staffers reportedly signed the letter as it took on “a life of its own,” the staffer said. “It’s unprecedented. I’ve seen the Post through different eras, many sackings but I’ve not seen anything like this.”