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Interview: Media tycoon Jimmy Lai’s aide defends sale of investigative magazine

On Monday, Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai announced the sale of his pioneering investigative tabloid Next Magazine to businessman Kenny Wee for HK$500 million amid financial difficulties. The move sparked fears from the Next Media group’s labour union that the outspoken magazine would lose its editorial independence, while Wee has threatened to dismiss employees who are “biased” against him.

Next Magazine staff questioned whether Lai had reneged on his promise not to sell off his publications; he told reporters in 2013 that he would be a “son of a bitch for the rest of his life” if he did so. Thursday’s edition of the magazine hit out at Lai, accusing him of “selling out” the publication in its cover story.

But American executive Mark Simon, Lai’s right-hand man, told HKFP he is confident that Next Magazine would retain its editorial independence – even though Wee would be a different type of owner. “There is not another Jimmy Lai coming for Next,” he said. “But why is that the expectation?”

Simon said that Wee’s free newspaper Metro Daily – which he owned from 2013 until last month – has never shunned business with the Next Media group, even as pressure from Beijing caused many local companies to withdraw advertisements from Lai’s pro-democracy publications.

“The newspaper world is small in Hong Kong, and we have a favourable impression of Metro,” he said. “We printed them for a while, handled some distribution, and they even bought content from us.”

Though Wee promised editorial independence for Next Magazine, he also previously claimed that he is more of a “moderate,” and that it is not necessary to always oppose the government as a journalist.

See also: Labour union fears outspoken Next Magazine may face censorship after HK$500m sale

“Is it required that Mr. Wee take a seat at the next Occupy Central?” Simon said. “All owners are different.”

Kenny Wee Ho Mark Simon Next Magazine

Kenny Wee (L), Mark Simon (R). File photo: Apple Daily.

“What will keep Next honest is the market,” he added. “If Next starts taking dives, folks notice, and in a social media world that means a downfall. I don’t think Kenny bought Next to lose.”

‘Tumour’ comments

Meanwhile, Thursday’s Next Magazine cover story not only criticised Lai for selling the publication, but also spelled out a list of controversies involving new owner Wee. These included a conviction for spitting at a reporter, creditor lawsuits regarding his ownership of Metro Daily and E Weekly, and a friendship with former leader Leung Chun-ying’s daughter that got his family invited to Government House last year.

The 44-year-old businessman hardened his line after he found out about the story, telling Sing Tao Daily on Tuesday that 5 per cent of the magazine’s staff were a “tumour” to the rest of the team.

“[They] slam everything they don’t like, they don’t investigate or find proof, and write biased reports,” he said. “I have zero tolerance for this type of tumour.”

See also: New Next Magazine owner says employees biased against him cannot stay

Simon told HKFP that he, too, had little sympathy for the editors who published the Thursday story. “If it was any other publication I would worry about the 5 per cent tumour remark, but this is Next and you saw that cover of the July 20 issue. It was a hard crack at Wee and our major shareholder, Jimmy Lai.”

Next Magazine

Next Magazine. File photo: Elson Tong/HKFP.

“Now I make no bones I was not a fan of [Wee’s comments], which is our right at Next, but it was the editors at Next Magazine that fired first at the guy who was buying their magazine.”

“So, while others would replace some in management more diplomatically, Next kind [of] earned that response,” he said.

Simon added that he was more concerned about the futures of the journalists whom Wee says he would like to retain at Next Magazine: “I would like those more junior people, people who need the pay cheque, to have a chance at making their own decision.”

Simon said that the Next Media group was happy with Wee’s promise to retain the vast majority of the staff in Next Magazine.

‘Red capital’ concerns

Although Wee is often followed by Hong Kong paparazzi due to his marriage to actress Suki Choi, media columnists have described his background as “mysterious.” He made a fortune in the food and beverage business, but his business has been suspected of being a front for mainland Chinese “red capital” – a charge he denied in his Sing Tao Daily interview.

kenny wee

Kenny Wee. File photo: Apple Daily.

Simon said he only met Wee once, but said he conducted inquiries on his background in the lead-up to several earlier business deals.

“[Wee’s] restaurants have good cash flow. Also I know a few of his business associates,” he said. “I put his net worth at about US$70-80 million after the Metro sale. So he has the money.”

In Thursday’s cover story, Next Magazine took questions regarding Wee’s source of wealth a step further. The magazine wrote that it could not find any property transaction records involving luxury residences that Wee previously claimed he bought – including at Sorrento, The Harbourside and The Arch.

“There are calls nearly every month from potential buyers for all [of Next Media’s] assets,” said Simon. “Most are clowns.”

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Interview: Media tycoon Jimmy Lai's aide defends sale of investigative magazine