Next Media chairman and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chi-ying considers a media decade
What are your achievements and regrets as the paper's owner during the past 10 years?
The key achievement is that it is a money-making newspaper. This is very important, as it sustains our survival. We have also succeeded, as an 'opposition paper', in making space for Hong Kong people's voices. As more newspapers lean towards Beijing, it is important that we maintain our independence and keep a space for people to voice opposition views.
We made mistakes. Yet these were not matters for regret, but lessons. We have the humility to face up to them but we don't regret what we did. Likewise, our opposition stance is costing us about HK$200 million of advertising revenue a year due to a boycott by some advertisers. This is a very high price. Do we regret it? No. There is no free lunch in the world. You have to pay a price for what you choose to be.
What do you mean by the independence of your newspaper? How would you define it in the spectrum of the Hong Kong media?
For some, independence means taking no stance. But we can't take this approach. Many media organisations have leaned towards Beijing, while some have become the voice of the government. It is natural for us to choose to balance this view in the market, rather than just trying to present a balanced view. By independent, I mean we are independent from the power of the government, the pressure of Beijing or the influence of the business sector.
What would you say to those who see you as coming under strong US influence and as part of the so-called anti-revolutionary force in Hong Kong?
They are entitled to their opinion, of course. But if they think we are subverting the government, this is ridiculous. We might voice more criticism of the government when it intervenes in the market or when it is not pushing hard enough for universal suffrage. But how do we subvert the government by so doing? We are just taking a stance. It is our role as a member of the media to supervise the government. The saying about US influence is not true. But do I share a lot of the values of the US? Yes. Democracy, freedom, rule of law: these are predominant values of today's world. They have become not just American values, but values that are shared by other parts of the world. There are people who go as far as saying I am a CIA agent. What can I say?
How much freedom do Hong Kong citizens enjoy?
I think we're still free. I also think we will continue to be a free society for a long time to come. This is because Hong Kong is China's window to the world and it is in the interest of Beijing to keep us free. I also think that if the government were to make any attempt to clamp down on the freedom of speech in Hong Kong, people would react in a very strong way to deter it from doing so. At the same time, we have the mainland moving towards a more liberalised society. As it does so, Hong Kong can only have more freedom rather than less.
You sound much more optimistic than you were back in 1997, when you once reacted emotionally to the topic of press freedom in Hong Kong in an interview with CNN. What has made you change your assessment?
Nobody has a crystal ball to tell the future, you know. At that time, I could only judge Beijing by what it had done before. It had been very tough in controlling and clamping down on the media. This still happens on the mainland. So it was just natural for us to think of the worst scenario and get prepared for it.
Where do you see Hong Kong's democratic development going?
We are entitled to universal suffrage. We are ready for it. I think Hong Kong people also feel that democracy is no longer a political ideal; it is a moral imperative because this is the dominant value of today's world and without that we don't seem to have the dignity of citizens of the world. I'm sure Hong Kong people will fight for it.
Do you think there are inherent contradictions in the way you run your publications? On the one hand, you uphold high-sounding aspirations such as democracy, but on the other, you also get a fair bit of criticism for sensationalism and questionable journalistic ethics.
We have to sell [copies of our publications] in order to get our voice heard. If we don't sell well, it is futile to take whatever stance we take. So, the primary objective is to sell. This will ensure our voice is heard by the people. We sometimes do go overboard. We have done things wrong.
But for all of these, we take the responsibility. We stand up to apologise for our wrongdoings, correct them, learn from our lessons and seek to improve. At the same time, you also need to take into account the fact that because of the stance we take, we have a lot of forces - overtly or covertly - working against us. Our rivals can do a lot of things to smear and discredit us.
The portrayal of yourself in the Hong Kong media has changed quite significantly since 1997. Newspaper reports once focused on you as a successful businessman but nowadays, they are always on the negative side. How do you see this 'transformation' of yourself?
What people think doesn't matter. At the end of the day, you've got to be answerable to your own conscience. We have to do what our conscience prompts us to do. There's a lot of smearing there. You have to believe in what you do and you know that a lot of those things [written about you] are false. A lot of them are just smears, but what can I do to change it?
On a more personal note, how have you changed in the past 10 years?
I have done very well. There were ups and downs. I had my AdMart business that cost me a lot of money. That was an expensive lesson and a very dumb thing that I did. And we have our success in Taiwan. We are the most expensive newspaper but also the biggest. We have the biggest magazine there. And we have survived the free newspapers' attack in Hong Kong. Our newspaper is revised, coming back strong, and lively, very dynamic. We have had ups and downs but the past 10 years have been good for me. I have a good family. This is important for me. My kids are doing well. What else can I ask for?
What do you think are the most evident changes in Hong Kong?
That would be the drop in the standard of English. Besides, I think Hong Kong people have become more reliant, more dependent on handouts from China. They expect Beijing to do something for them. This is quite different from the past when we all recognised that our fate was in our own hands. We knew we had to work hard to get what we want. This kind of willpower and self respect is being eroded. This is pathetic.
What is the picture you'd paint for 2017?
I cannot tell what the future will be like, but I hope that by 2017 we'll have democracy. True, the Chinese values are eroding the values we used to have, but being a Chinese city doesn't deprive us of the right to attain democracy. It is actually more meaningful for Hong Kong to have democracy after it has become part of China. We can be a catalyst for Chinese democracy. If Hong Kong has democracy, I can then do anything I like with the paper. I don't need to be on the opposition side. But before that, I'm stuck. I can't shed my responsibility as the owner. There's no choice for me.