When they heard that trading in shares of i-Cable, a Hong Kong pay-TV and broadband internet service had been suspended at noon on Thursday, staff at i-Cable’s news department assumed they would soon receive news about the sale of the loss-making business.
Instead what they learnt was that Wharf Holdings, which owns i-Cable, could not find a buyer and would not be extending a HK$400 million loan to the subsidiary once it expires at the end of December.
There would be no more money at the end of the year, which means the station would presumably shut down, and there was even a question mark over whether the company would apply for a renewal of its pay-TV licence at the end of May. After more than 20 years, the station might only have two months to live. “It came as a shock,” a senior newsroom staffer told me on condition of anonymity. “We never expected this to come so suddenly…it’s a political decision.”
He said he had thought the news station would be “neutralized slowly” by being sold off to a mainland company in a fate similar to Asia Television (ATV), a terrestrial TV station that was run into the ground before shutting down last year.
“But it seems they just decided to kill us off without having to pay, to just eliminate us altogether,” he added.
But who are “they” and why would they want to pull the plug on i-Cable?
Since it began broadcasting 23 years ago, i-Cable has offered a mix of sports, movies, entertainment and news channels, but it is the flagship local news channel, known as Cable News, that has won the most plaudits. It was the first station to provide 24-hour news in Hong Kong and is respected for providing independent coverage that is sometimes critical of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.
It’s fair to say Cable News is seen as a relatively trustworthy source of news in the face of Hong Kong’s increasing self-censorship and shrinking press freedom. Last year, Hong Kong ranked 69th in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index. It was 18th when the index began in 2002. Polls conducted by the Hong Kong Journalist Association show self-censorship to be on the rise. Over the years China has rewarded media bosses with appointments to its top advisory body, including Wharf’s chief advisor Peter Woo Kwong-ching, who was the group’s chairman for three decades before stepping down in 2015.
The Cable News China team in particular is highly regarded for its consistently solid and at times courageous reporting. Memorable stories include a series on the soldiers who conducted China’s nuclear tests in the 1960s and who consequently suffered lasting health problems, and an exclusive interview with labour organizer Li Wangyang, who spent the longest time in prison of anyone jailed for involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy protests. Four days after the interview was broadcast, Li was found dead in suspicious circumstances in a hospital where he was being treated for heart disease.
Hong Kong journalists working on China stories are used to receiving pressure, in the form of phone calls from the Central Liaison Office and other mainland organs. The veteran Cable journalist I spoke to says they would regularly receive such calls.
“One time, a story was broadcast at 9:48 pm and we got a call at 9:50 pm,” he recalled.
Despite this pressure, he said they rarely felt the heat from top management. He said he got the impression that although i-Cable lost money, former boss Peter Woo was proud of the business and did not personally want to sell it.
However, for the past year and a half there has been constant talk of a sale and the senior staffer said that whenever Woo was asked about the future of the TV business, he would avoid the subject, saying it was “very political.”
“I would say there’s been one ‘tone’,” said the staffer. “[Woo] keeps stressing that the Xi [Jinping] era is here, it’s really here.”
Since taking power in 2012, president Xi Jinping has moved to consolidate control over the Communist Party and the country through a high-profile anti-corruption campaign, increased control of the media and further silencing of dissident voices.
The likely closure of i-Cable will have a similar impact on press freedom in Hong Kong, the staffer said: “It’s part of Xi Jinping’s move to consolidate and homogenize information and opinion, to spin a good China story.”
The timeline of the i-Cable sale negotiations has led to speculation that politics were behind their collapse, including links to the mysterious disappearance of Chinese billionaire businessman Xiao Jianhua. The veteran journalist said that around four or five days before it emerged that Xiao had allegedly been abducted from the luxury Hong Kong hotel where he lived, senior management had indicated there could an announcement about a sale in one or two weeks.
But after news broke of Xiao’s disappearance, there was a sudden silence about a sale or related talks. Xiao had powerful political connections in the Mainland and was thought to handle the business dealings of China’s elites. Earlier, names such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma and the Chinese state-owned CITIC group had also been mentioned in relation to the i-Cable sale, said the staffer.
Of course, politics may not be the only reason for Wharf’s decision to pull the plug. The station has been losing money for years, and other staffers say there have been apparently desperate cost-cutting moves in the newsroom such as cutting newspaper subscriptions and reducing paper towels in the toilets. I-Cable reported a HS$313 million loss last year with declining advertising revenues and increased competition in the local TV market with the addition of a new free-to-air station, Viu TV.
As a longtime subscriber, I only kept the service for the news, finding the rest of the offerings mediocre at best. But I know I’m not a typical customer. As Executive Director of i-Cable News and Sports Ronald Chiu Ying-chun notes, serious, in-depth news costs money to produce but the public is increasingly content to settle for more superficial and free content.
Analysts have also pointed to the use of outdated technology and legacy media operational structures as contributory factors to i-Cable’s failure to turn around its financial woes.
Whatever the reasons, unless alternative funding can be found for the struggling company, Hong Kong will lose a respected and much needed source of news and original reporting and 2000 employees, including 200-300 editorial staff will be out of jobs.