South China Morning Post CEO confirms talks over possible sale

Hong Kong (dpa) – The venerable Hong Kong-based English broadsheet South China Morning Post confirmed it is in talks to sell stakes in the paper with a yet unidentified interested party, on Wednesday night.

“The company made an announcement pursuant to the inside information provisions … and so affirmed the company has received a preliminary approach from an interested party regarding its interest in a possible purchase of the company’s media business,” wrote CEO Robin Hu in a memo sent to staff late Wednesday night.

The paper confirmed in an article posted on its website late Wednesday that it had received a preliminary offer from an unnamed buyer.

“The preliminary understanding is that the potential purchaser would like to have continuity in the media business’ operations, and that minimal disruption of the media business is expected,” SCMP cited Hu as saying to staff.

Media reports this week have said the 112 year-old newspaper was to be bought by billionare businessman Jack Ma, founder of Chinese internet giant Alibaba.

The buyer is interested in the “newspaper, magazines, and adjacencies business such as outdoor media, custom publishing and events,” wrote Hu.

He said “minimal disruption of the media business is expected” and that they will make the best effort to ensure “the interests of our employees will be taken care of.”

The proposal is still at a “very early stage and is subject to discussion, regulatory review and approval.”

The Post was one of the most profitable papers in the world and was previously owned by Rupert Murdoch, before he sold his stake to the Kuok family, who currently own the company.

The Kuoks are a Malaysian Chinese family, who count Kerry Properties, the Shangri-la hotels and Wilmar International, a palm oil production company, under their many assets.

As of November 25, their patriarch Robert Kuok has an estimated net worth of 9.4 billion US dollars, according to Forbes.

Ma is worth an estimated 23.8 billion.

The Post was in the past considered a moderate voice, but has come under close scrutiny in recent years by those who worry the paper is falling under greater influence of mainland China and its censors.

The current editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei has faced repeated questioning about his handling of stories, including a decision to run a story about the mysterious death of Tiananmen dissident Li Wangyang as a short 50 word story, while other media outlets had put the story on the front page.

After serving as editor-in-chief since January 2012, he will soon depart the Hong Kong newsroom and is to be replaced by current deputy editor Tammy Tam on January 1, 2016.

In the past year, the paper has seen waves of resignations from dozens of senior editorial staff and reporters.

“While it’s too early to respond to reports of the sale of the South China Morning Post, it isn’t too late to worry about the decline of media freedom and diversity in Hong Kong,” said Bob Dietz, Asia programme coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The sad reality is that ownership of most media has become agglomerated in the hands of business leaders whose interest clearly lie in pleasing the Beijing government rather than pressing for less media control from the state,” Dietz told dpa.

“The Post’s independence has come under legitimate question ever since the handover to China in 1997. The details surrounding its sale will be telling about the direction of all media in Hong Kong.”

Meanwhile, Ma has been coy about his interest in the newspaper, saying in a recent interview on Bloomberg TV that he was “watching a lot of companies.”

But in the same interview he said such a deal would benefit both sides.

“We need media to help our small, medium-size companies to promote,” Ma said. “And by the way, our advertisement dollars [are] huge.” He said a media company could benefit from using Alibaba’s massive amount of data for “more accurate” economic indicators.

The Post has itself taken the foray into e-commerce, investing in the site MyDress.com.

“This acquisition [of MyDress] underpins the SCMP Group’s determination to fortify its digital development growth thrust,” said Robin Hu at the time.

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