In-your-face publisher Jimmy Lai still has a place in democrats' hearts

Albert Cheng urges Jimmy Lai on his return from Taiwan to continue using the clout of Apple and Next to advance democracy in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2012, 2:14am

Local media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's decision to sell Next Media's print and television operations in Taiwan to Jeffrey Koo Jnr for NT$17.5 billion (HK$4.6 billion) marks the company's exit from the Taiwanese market to focus on its Hong Kong operations. The move has inevitably aroused a great deal of public interest as to what Lai is going to do next.

Lai has been a highly controversial figure since he entered the media market in 1990, mostly because of his combative stance to support press and political freedom.

No one can deny the fact that Lai is an extremely shrewd and successful businessman. His media empire is a force among local media and highly influential, having a catalytic effect on its more traditional rivals.

Lau has forced most of them to adapt and follow the Apple way to become more sensational and aggressive in their reporting. Only the small handful of local newspapers that focus on a high-end readership have not followed suit.

On the magazine side, Next Media has popularised the paparazzi style of news reporting, with all of Hong Kong's local gossip magazines copying this practice, which has seriously affected the quality of journalism.

The rise of paparazzi has led to a decline in not only quality reports but also the moral standards of the local media industry.

After his success in Hong Kong, Lai set up in Taiwan more than 10 years ago, hoping to repeat his Hong Kong accomplishment there. As far as the newspaper and magazine operations are concerned, he achieved what he set out to do and turned his print editions into some of the most popular on the island.

The Taiwanese Apple Daily is the largest newspaper on the island while Next Magazine and Sharp Daily have also occupied a leading role in the media market here.

This achievement gave him confidence to expand his media empire to the competitive television business on the island. He even took it a step further by launching an animated news format to challenge the island's more subdued reporting style.

Lai's modus operandi, his sensational media approach that puts profits ahead of core values and traditional media practices, have caused a lot of angst among his competitors as well as the democratically minded Taiwanese and intellectuals.

Under the present Taiwanese government of mainland-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou, Lai found his television venture blocked by regulatory hurdles, making it difficult for him to freely develop his television operation. As a result, the television unit suffered huge losses.

Lai's relentless style of not giving in to the rich and powerful and his strong belief that market forces reign supreme have raised a lot of eyebrows in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The increasingly hostile regulatory and political environment in Taiwan has forced Lai to sell more than just his embattled television unit. During the negotiations, it was made clear that investors were interested in buying up his entire media empire.

No matter what people think of him, Lai is undoubtedly a sharp businessman, a social provocateur and a news innovator. His media group is the envy of competitors.

His next move after the Taiwan exit has stirred public interest. If he chooses to retire, many people will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief. But it's most likely that he has a few exciting plans up his sleeve.

When the DBC Radio controversy reached boiling point, Lai stepped forward and offered a helping hand by giving us a powerful internet platform.

His Apple Daily has also changed its style somewhat by making its reporting less sensational. The paper is trying to lift its corporate image and be more socially responsible in how it connects with its audience and society.

At the moment, his influential tabloid weekly publication Next Magazine is still churning out trashy articles. Its editors delight in digging up dirt on public figures and celebrities to titillate readers.

I sincerely hope Lai will continue to use his influence and intellect to optimise the power of the media and contribute more to society.

It's widely known that Lai is a staunch supporter of democracy and has contributed immensely towards its development in Hong Kong. Under the Leung Chun-ying government, it's almost certain our personal freedoms will be stifled and the scope of democracy will be gradually tightened.

At this critical time, we need more people to speak up and defend our rights and freedoms. If Lai truly believes in freedom, the rule of law, human rights and democracy, it's time for him to show his real influence and intellect and use his powerful media tools to make a difference for society and earn the respect he most desires.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator and founder of DBC Radio.