The proposed end of Fairfax Media as an entity governing the editorial output of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review and regional newspapers has provoked mounting anger by some of Australia’s most prominent journalists.
Fairfax investigative journalist Kate McClymont told The New Daily that she was devastated to learn that the Nine entertainment group would take a controlling 51 per cent stake in Fairfax media assets and that the governance structures which had protected and nurtured quality journalism through the famous mastheads would be terminated.
While she had heard Fairfax management’s reassurances that the print mastheads would continue “our readers need to know that the maintenance of quality journalism is all we’re asking to be allowed to do”.
Fairfax economics editor Ross Gittins told The New Daily he had known of talk of a merger with Nine “but I hadn’t quite realised we’d be gobbled up”.
“Fairfax is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of an entertainment company,” Mr Gittins said.
Another Fairfax source questioned the Fairfax board’s decision last year to float its profitable Domain real estate business as a separately listed entity.
Defended by the Fairfax board as a strategy to enhance shareholder value, the move was cynically judged by some as a prelude to asset-stripping at a time when the journalism mastheads and their associated websites needed conspicuous market support from the better advertising revenues generated through Australia’s booming property market.
“Because it’s wreck-able. That’s why the Fairfax board, with its 60 per cent stake in Domain has presented its new owner, Nine, with an easy decision to close down the print mastheads without remorse when the time inevitably comes,” the source said.
Former prime minister Paul Keating made a similar point in a live ABC 7.30 interview on Thursday.
Gittins supported a call by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to “press pause” on regulatory approval of the Nine takeover of Fairfax pending the ACCC’s final report on local advertising market dominance by global digital platforms including Google and Facebook.
“What’s [Australian] democracy going to do when big outfits like Fairfax indicate [through this takeover] that they cannot persevere with quality journalism? What’s next?”
While The Age’s economics editor Peter Martin, who is departing Fairfax this week to join The Conversation, doubted the ACCC as a competition regulator had a role in media diversity, “I’d be happy if it did suspend” approval of the merger pending its final digital platforms report.
Martin said he accepted the Fairfax board’s decision to float Domain in the best interests of Fairfax shareholders. Regional newspapers included in the Nine takeover include The Canberra Times, Illawarra Mercury and Newcastle Herald.
MEAA journalists’ section president, Marcus Strom, told The New Daily the union would fight to ensure all mastheads retained editorial independence under the charter first signed with staff by then-part-owner, Canadian mogul Conrad Black, in the early 1990s.
The ACCC has 12 weeks to consider regulatory approval of the takeover under current competition laws.
Strom said that given its digital platforms inquiry was currently under way and crucial to the future of Australian journalism, an ACCC decision to suspend such approval was more than justified.
While Nine CEO Hugh Marks has indicated the Nine board’s commitment to maintenance of the mastheads with $50 million of savings to be achieved over two years from operational “synergies”, the union fears more journalists’ jobs will soon also go.
Martin said the combined Fairfax metropolitan and regional reporting assets would enhance the merged entity’s online news competitiveness to the advantage of audiences.
Meanwhile, Gittins said Fairfax’s co-operative arrangements with the ABC on complex investigative journalism projects looked like being the first public-interest casualty of the takeover.
This article was published by The New Daily on the 26th of June 2018.
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He is a veteran of the ABC newsroom and has worked with a number of print titles including the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.