Media: The Sun rises in the east - and sets off a price war

A racy new mass-market newspaper is about to hit Hong Kong. Many fear the worst.
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The Independent Culture
DOES ANY of the following sound familiar ? A racy new mass-market newspaper will be brash, hot on human interest stories, strong on sports coverage and carry lots of entertainment news. And another thing, it will be called The Sun.

The new Sun, however, is far removed from Britain: it is to launched in Hong Kong this Thursday. Like its namesake, though, it belongs to an aggressive publishing company which is prepared to launch a price war to secure its place in the market.

The Hong Kong publisher of The Sun is the Oriental Press Group, which is euphemistically described as being either "colourful" or "controversial". It already owns Hong Kong's best selling newspaper, The Oriental Daily News, and a clutch of other high selling titles.

It is now heading in an even more downmarket direction, hoping to attract younger readers and, according to its pre-launch marketing material, take readers away from its bitter rival, the revolutionary Apple Daily newspaper.

The rivalry between the Oriental group and the Next Media Group, which owns Apple, sparked a vicious price war two years ago which ended with five closures in Hong Kong's newspaper world.

The Sun will be launched with a cover price of HK$2 (about 18p), while the competition sells at HK$5. The third ranking Sing Pao Daily has already launched a pre-emptive strike by promising to sell at HK$3 while the Apple Daily has made it clear that it will not sit idly by in a price war.

While the battle lines are being drawn on the price front, there is considerable speculation over how the fight will be pursued at the editorial level, where there are fears of greater sensationalism.

Last week all the popular papers ran big stories about a rumoured suicide attempt by Leon Lai, a heart throb big league pop star, who had to hold a press conference to prove he was not dead or self-mutilated.

Some in the newspaper industry fear that The Sun will drag reporting down to new depths, but its publishers promise that it will be "self-disciplined" and stress "good taste" with an "avoidance of obscene, indecent and profane language".

Many of the reporters it has recruited are young and new to the industry. Their enthusiasm may take them in directions closer to those pursued by their British namesake.

This would mark a radical departure for popular journalism in Hong Kong, which is a bizarre mixture of extraordinarily racy reportage alongside serious political, economic financial and international news. Whereas British tabloids used to sell newspapers on the shoulders of unclad page three girls, their more prudish Hong Kong counterparts (which are all broadsheets) eschew naked flesh but are quite happy to show obscene scene of the crime pictures depicting severed limbs and the like.

The Oriental Daily News made its name from crime reporting and retains an enormous stable of reporters who cruise around Hong Kong in cars ready to rush to crime scenes, sometimes arriving before the police.

It may be thought that the paper's interest in crime is somewhat inappropriate considering that Ma Sik-chun, its principal founder, is a fugitive from justice living in Taiwan where he escaped after fleeing from Hong Kong's biggest ever drug trafficking conspiracy trial.

The Ma family are very well known in Hong Kong but only came to the attention of the British public a year ago when they used the Oriental Daily to publicise a demand for the Conservative Party to return a pounds 1m donation made by the Mas in June 1994 "in exchange for a personal matter". According to the Ma family, "this matter was not dealt with" and so they were publicly demanding the money back.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun in Britain, is also known to court politicians but seems to have done so without attracting the same kind of publicity as the Mas. Like them, however, he has proved himself brave entering tight newspaper markets and has been ruthless in eliminating the competition.

The similarities are compelling.