South China Morning Post confirms takeover offer

Speculation that Alibaba boss is bidder fuels concerns over China's influence on media

A photo illustration shows the South China Morning Post website with the face of Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group.
A photo illustration shows the South China Morning Post website with the face of Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group. PHOTO: REUTERS

The mainland Chinese charge into Hong Kong print media appears imminent, with the city's most influential English-language newspaper confirming that it has received a preliminary takeover offer.

While the South China Morning Post (SCMP), noted for its coverage of China, did not name the buyer, speculation is that it is one of China's richest men, Mr Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce group Alibaba.

If the sale occurs, it will mark the first time a mainstream Hong Kong newspaper is owned by mainland Chinese interests, says analyst Willy Lam. This rouses anxieties in the city - sensitive to any signs of Beijing tightening its grip on it - that the 112-year-old broadsheet could see its editorial coverage affected.

In a staff memo on Wednesday, group CEO Robin Hu stated that "minimal disruption" is expected, as preliminary understanding is that the potential buyer wants "continuity" in the operations. He added that the board and management remain committed to continue to run the SCMP as "an independent and insightful newspaper admired by peers and opinion leaders alike".

The SCMP Group, controlled by Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok since 1993, said in a filing to the Hong Kong Exchange on Wednesday it has received an early-stage offer from a party interested in buying the firm's media assets. These include the newspaper, magazines and outdoor media, custom publishing and events businesses.

"Consideration of such a proposal is at a very early stage and the terms of any potential transaction remain subject to discussion and to regulatory review," group chairman David Pang said in the filing.

The SCMP Group's director of marketing, Mr Michael Chu, told The Straits Times that a financial adviser will be engaged "soon" to advise the company and its board. He added that it was the choice of the suitor to remain anonymous at this point.

Speculation had swirled over the potential transaction for the past weeks after Beijing state paper China Daily reported on negotiations.

The SCMP, buffeted by industry challenges, including the rise of online news sites, has seen its circulation and profits decline. But it remains one of the English-language print media read for its insights into China and its home city - and thus one that the Beijing leadership would want to influence.

Politics thus appears to be one consideration for Mr Ma's interest. Business-wise, it does not make immediate sense, says Mr Andrew Collier, a former reporter with the paper now working in financial research. "It is not clear why Alibaba would want to own a newspaper in Hong Kong given that its revenues are a fraction of Alibaba's."

SCMP has a market value of about HK$3 billion (S$543.9 million), a tiny sliver of the US$200 billion (S$281 billion) that Alibaba is worth.

That said, such a move could be part of Mr Ma's broader ambitions to fashion himself into a media mogul. Earlier this year, Alibaba said it would invest US$193.6 million in China Business News to create a new financial data and information services company.

Within Hong Kong, a successful transaction will mark a milestone in the newspaper industry. Chinese dailies Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Pao are acknowledged to be state mouthpieces, owned and controlled by Chinese Communist Party organs. But Beijing's influence in mainstream newspapers has been more subtle: through non-mainland businessmen with extensive interests on the mainland.

Mr Ma's nationality makes a difference, says Dr Lam, who believes more interested mainland buyers of Hong Kong newspapers will follow.

While Mr Ma has declared that he "loves Hong Kong", he has also made it clear where his loyalties lie.

"I like my friends (in Hong Kong), its climate, its food and, in particular, I like that it is part of China."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2015, with the headline 'South China Morning Post confirms takeover offer'. Subscribe