Things could not have been going much better for Hong Kong media maverick Jimmy Lai.
On his first day back as Next Digital chairman on Thursday, his name was cleared in a three-year investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over alleged political donations.
Now the 70-year-old businessman faces a new challenge: steering his listed media flagship Next Digital off the rocks after a failure to sell its unprofitable Next Magazine business. The magazine is published in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Shares of Next Digital were suspended on Friday morning after reports that the company will terminate the sale of Next Magazine to businessman Kenny Wee for HK$500 million (US$63.9 million).
Wee has paid just HK$88 million since the deal was struck last July. That sum includes HK$28 million towards the magazine’s running costs since September.
Wee had aimed to complete the acquisition of the Hong Kong part of the business first, while waiting for approval from authorities in Taiwan.
Matters came to a head with the failure of a money transfer from Wee to Next Digital.
Some have suggested Wee’s funding has been “dubious” all along. There have also been conspiracy theories to the effect that the Chinese government has tried to block the deal to hurt Lai, who is well known for opposing Beijing and speaking up for democracy.
The failed sale upsets Lai’s plan to free up cash to channel into his newspaper, Apple Daily.
Next Magazine was once the jewel in the Next Digital (formerly Next Media) crown but it has suffered losses three years in a row.
With the sale now stalled, it is expected Next Digital will suspend publication of the magazine but maintained its online presence as it continues to look for buyers.
On the bright side for Lai, at least Wee financed the publication for four months.