It would not be fair to blame Greg Hywood alone for the destruction of the Fairfax brand. The rot set in a long time ago, arguably some 30 years before when young Warwick Fairfax decided on his own disastrous takeover bid for the company.
That was effectively the end; the then chairman, James Fairfax, an amiable dilettante, resigned from the firm and the bean counters took over, culminating in the eight year reign of Hywood as CEO.
And the point about Hywood is that for a very long time he has been more of an accountant than a journalist. He had a period as a competent but undistinguished hack at the Australian Financial Review’s Canberra bureau before being consumed by ambition to move up to the executive suites.
But on the way he had been imbued with the spirit of Fin Reviewism, an early form of neo-Liberalism then known as economic rationalism. Stripped of the spin, this was the principle that held that free enterprise — complete deregulation — transcended all other considerations. Economics was about economics, not the namby-pamby concerns of looking for a wider vision of existence.
Thus under Hywood Fairfax became not a publishing house but a business, and business was all about the bottom line. As sensible people had been predicting for years, the depredations of the internet were shrinking the Fairfax share price (on which, among other things, Hywood’s exorbitant salary package depended) alarmingly and would go on doing so.
But Hywood was the very model of a modern chief executive – the shareholders were paramount, the workers and customers merely a means to their gratification. So his solution? Cut costs and keep cutting them, and if most of the victims were those who actually produced the papers (as opposed to the annual reports), well, a Maserati driver’s got to do what a Maserati driver’s got to do.
Obviously this campaign of attrition damaged the journalism – indeed, it was gratifying and somewhat surprising that anything serious survived at all. But there were the occasional revelations and scoops that relieved the endless fluff of the lifestyle boosters and the obsessive concentration on real estate prices.
Hywood’s capitulation to Channel Nine may well bring that to an end – even on its worst days the Age and the SMH seldom if ever plumbed the depths of the kind of current affairs which revolves around Channel 9 stunts, cheque-book journalism and endless free plugs for the major advertisers.
But the ex-Fairfax mastheads will not be alone in their suffering. The ABC has been under attack not only from the government but by the commercial media, who like to blame it for their own shortcomings.
The defunding of the ABC has been serious, but until now it has been ameliorated to an extent by the joint investigations with Fairfax journalists. Now the campaign to destroy the national broadcaster will gather impetus and enthusiasm.
The Murdoch press, sheltered by an indulgent proprietor who, unlike the grocers and brokers of the Fairfax board actually knows something about journalism, will enhance its dominance. The media landscape will become greyer and more precarious.
And Hywood, his work of destruction complete, will tootle off into the sunset with the terse salutation: “I would like to thank everybody for their (sic; mild illiteracy) contribution to Fairfax.” As one of Fairfax’s true believers, Kate McClymont, responded: “So after 150-plus years, is that all we get?” Yes, Kate, it is.
But now for the good news: Hywood is in line for a golden handshake of some $10 million or so. A job well done – he has destroyed the great Fairfax tradition in order to save it, although it is not entirely clear for whom.