The day before Apple Daily was forced to shut down, one of its political reporters shouted the final question of his final assignment, a press conference by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
“…you said that the national security law would only affect a small group of people, but over 800 people in my company are being forced out of their jobs. Mrs Lam, can you give a response?” asked the reporter.
Lam walked away without looking at him.
The stridently pro-democracy newspaper published its final edition on Thursday, a special print run of one million copies. People queued all over the city to buy a copy.
Apple Daily and its founder, 73-year-old former clothing tycoon Jimmy Lai, had suffered a series of body blows since Beijing passed the sweeping national security law to tighten its grip on Hong Kong. Last August some 200 police from the force’s national security unit raided its offices and arrested Lai and others.
On June 17 this year, 500 police were involved in a raid in which dozens of computers and boxes of journalistic material were seized. Five of the paper’s senior executives were arrested, two of whom were charged under the national security law, and HK$18 million of the paper’s assets was frozen.
Police said some 30 articles in the paper, some dating back to 2019, had allegedly expressed support for international sanctions on Beijing and Hong Kong officials.
This week, an Apple Daily editorial writer was detained under the law and directors decided it was time to call it quits – for the safety of the remaining staff.
The newspaper made waves when it was launched in 1995. Not only it was the first paper in the city to be printed fully in colour, it also initiated a price war with a cover price of HK$2 when HK$5 was the norm. For the first couple of days, people were given an apple when they bought a copy.
“An apple a day keeps the liars away,” was its slogan.
However, what really grabbed attention most was the newspaper’s style.
“The most special thing about Apple Daily was that they changed the ways of the Hong Kong news section and the entertainment news section,” said Clement So, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).
“In the past, the Hong Kong news section was very serious, but Apple Daily used a bit of entertainment news methods to make it appealing and interesting, and [to Apple Daily] it was acceptable to slightly exaggerate,” So told HKFP.
Other papers began mimicking the paper’s layout, its tactics for attracting readers and even its means of getting information.
However, the paper’s unconventional newsgathering methods also attracted criticism and the paper had its fair share of controversies, several of which ended up in court.
In 1998, following a murder-suicide case involving a mother and two children, an Apple Daily reporter paid her husband HK$5,000 to visit a sex worker and took photos of the visit for exclusive front-page photos.
The incident led to widespread criticism of cheque-book journalism and Lai had to publish an apology.
“Four professional journalists’ groups, including the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, published a guideline for journalists because of controversies created by Apple Daily,” said So.
Apart from its sensationalist reporting , Yuen Chan, a journalism lecturer at City, University of London, said Apple Daily “adopted a commercial, populist style to attract mass readership.”
“This proved to be successful but it also reflected a lot of the prejudices of mainstream Hong Kong society,” the lecturer told HKFP. “So Apple was anything but ‘woke’ on a number of cultural and social issues such as race and gender.”
Bright political colour
Neither did the paper shade its political stance. As a self-proclaimed “pro-democracy newspaper,” Apple Daily was clear from day one about where it stood.
Lai, who fled Maoist-era China for Hong Kong at the age of 12 and built his fortune by founding the Giordano clothing chain, often said the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 in Beijing was the watershed moment that led to his decision to launch a media business. He started Next Magazine the following year and Apple Daily in 1995.
“We belong to Hong Kong,” was the headline on the paper’s editorial in its first edition. “Apple Daily is the Hong Kong people’s newspaper, the Hong Kong people’s view is our view,” it proclaimed.
Apple Daily has never shied away from criticising the Hong Kong government and Beijing, and has often encouraged its readers to take part in pro-democracy rallies and protests – at one point printing posters with protest slogans to accompany each copy of the paper.
Beijing’s official media and sympathisers heaped vitriolic criticism on the paper and its founder in response.
“It’s not unusual for a newspaper to have its own positions, but it’s usually not that obvious, and it won’t usually advocate,” said So.
Room for expression
“I wanted to go to my final Lam press conference before I leave the company,” said the political reporter, who asked to be identified only as M. He worked for another newspaper for just over a year after graduating and then spent 14 years with Apple Daily. “The room for expression was much greater at Apple Daily,” M told HKFP.
Lai, he said, often wrote his own column, but did not interfere with the work of the journalists.
“It’s widely known that Lai was close to the pan-democracy camp, but I have never received instructions to alter my own reporting because of his views,” said M.
Not only did journalists enjoy more room for expression, Apple Daily also provided ample resources for news coverage. Many of its investigative pieces caused a stir.
Apple Daily was the first to report that the then-financial secretary Antony Leung had bought an expensive car shortly before imposing a new car tax. The report eventually led to Leung’s resignation in July 2003.
Among many other exposés, the newspaper also uncovered a scandal in the construction of the MTR’s Shatin to Central rail link, where workers had cut steel bars to make it look as if they had been correctly attached to couplers securing a platform to the walls. The government later set up an independent commission of inquiry and expensive remedial work had to be done.
Chan Pui-king, a journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, was previously editor-in-chief of Next Magazine. She told HKFP she had never been restricted from investigating anyone.
“You need to understand that Lai came from a commercial background, he was the founder of the clothing chain Giordano,” said Chan Pui-king.
“He knows a lot of people in the clothing or industrial sectors. Sometimes when we had to investigate some people or even question them face-to-face, a lot of them told us that ‘I know Jimmy Lai’ or ‘I’ve known Lai for many years’,” said Chan Pui-king.
“When we went back to the office to discuss how we should approach the report, Lai, or my then-boss Cheung Kim-hung, would tell us to include that sentence too.”
Chan Pui-king said Next Digital investigative journalists never had to worry about how the boss’s personal relationships would impact their work. “We have a stronger goal and standard, that is to put powerful people under greater scrutiny,” she said.
The resources available to Next Digital, Apple Daily’s parent company, also contributed to its investigative successes. “I was never told to put a cap on expenses for my stories,” said Chan Pui-king.
Apple Daily was also known for its higher-than-average wages and concern for journalists’ welfare, in a city where neither was the norm.
Its headquarters in Tseung Kwan O included a swimming pool and tennis court. M remembered fondly the free coffee and ice cream in the office.
“They even have a famous roast duck restaurant set up in the canteen, and the company subsidised it, so we only pay HK$20 to HK$30 for what would usually cost HK$50 to HK$60,” said M.
“You can tell a lot about the room journalists enjoyed under Apple Daily by the fact that people were still willing to join the company during these turbulent times,” said M. “One of my colleagues only started out as the executives were arrested.”
So of CUHK said that while Apple Daily had its faults, its demise had narrowed Hong Kong’s diversity.
“Hong Kong, whether it was before or after the handover, has always been seen as tolerant of different voices. In theory, the city does not have censorship,” said Chan Pui-king. “The disappearance of Apple Daily probably shows that this city, or the Hong Kong government, does not allow other voices.”
Yuen Chan said that while Apple Daily’s closure had been expected, it was no less sad or shocking for press freedom and Hong Kong.
“It sends a very clear and chilling message to the rest of the media in Hong Kong,” she said.
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