QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Mass media power plays and the death of Fairfax

Nov 10, 2018

The competition regulator ACCC has now green-lighted the death of Fairfax Media Ltd., the governance entity what has been a foundational influence on public interest journalism in Australia since 1831.

This is the biggest shakeup in Australian mass media ownership  since the Hawke-Keating government allowed Rupert Murdoch to take over the Herald and Weekly Times newspaper conglomerate in 1987. It has been brought about by the media “reforms”  rammed through federal parliament by the Turnbull government last year.

What does it mean for you, Australian mass media consumers?  It will mean a loss of journal-of-record coverage and diversity in the voices you hear. This will occur through consolidation, the exercise of boardroom power in management appointments, editorial decisions and employment. It will significantly constrain the checks, balances  and cohesion of Australia’s robust democracy.

When Fairfax shareholders meet on November 19 in Sydney they are expected to endorse their board’s unanimous recommendation to merge with Nine Entertainment “in the absence of a superior proposal”.

Fairfax Media Ltd. will be delisted from the Australian stock exchange soon after December 7.

Although the iconic mastheads, The Sydney Morning-Herald, The Age  and the Australian Financial Review will continue with their associated online pay wall subscriber apps and websites, the governance structure which has protected their “independent, always” journalism culture will then be under the management control of Nine Entertainment Holdings Ltd.  This entity will be under the chairmanship of former Howard government treasurer Peter Costello and Nine CEO Hugh Marks.

While Nine will adopt Fairfax’s charter of editorial independence with staff, it will be the Costello board’s power and right to hire or fire all editors of all content outlets from December 7. It will be this board which decides when to   end these great Australian mastheads.

With Fairfax now jointly sharing printing presses with News Corp to save costs and also mounting joint campaigns to promote the benefits of advertising alongside text content, Australia will now start to see the erosion of public interest journalism within mainstream media after decades of healthy rivalry between the major print and free-to-air television players.

Nine will soon be cross promoting all its new text titles and websites plus Macquarie Radio,  including its 2GB shock jock network with Alan Jones and Ray Hadley;  Domain, its newly acquired real estate business  and Stan, its jointly-owned video streaming service.

Next Up:  Print editions will close

As more people use digital devices – computers, smart phones and tablets – to access all media,  it is only a matter of time before print editions of the mastheads are closed forever and all Australian news media goes solely online.  The Nine  board is likely to move on this before News Corp, blaming digital disruption for the regrettable inevitability of the terminations.

The ACCC is expected to deliver an interim report on media advertising disruption and alleged online market dominance of the search engine, Google,  and social media platform, Facebook,  before Christmas.  The future of Australia’s domestic media also hangs on any recommendations emerging from this  inquiry.

Fairfax has 160 titles including 16 metropolitan local newspapers,100 in regional New South Wales and the ACT, 10 in regional Victoria, six in regional Queensland and the Northern Territory, eight in regional South Australia and nine in regional Western Australia.

There has been informed speculation that News Corp, already with a dominance in regional outlets, will move next year to acquire many of the Fairfax regional titles if it can persuade the ACCC to approve the move.

Significantly, the ACCC has warned:  “Each merger or acquisition is assessed by the ACCC individually taking into account its particular circumstances. Today’s decision not to oppose the Nine-Fairfax merger is not indicative of what the ACCC may conclude in respect of any future proposed media merger or acquisition”.

Rod Sim’s tortuous reasoning

In announcing the Nine/Fairfax green light ACCC chairman, Mr Rod Sims, delivered a tortuous reasoning:

“While the merger between these two big name media players raised a number of extremely complex issues, and will likely reduce competition, we concluded that the proposed merger was not likely to substantially lessen

competition in any market in breach of the Competition and Consumer Act.”

And, laughably, Mr Sims offered as cover for his approval of the death of Fairfax the advent of online start-ups, including the The New Daily, publisher of this article:   “With the growth in online news, however, many other players, albeit smaller, now provide some degree of competitive constraint. These include, for example, The Guardian, The New Daily, Buzzfeed, Crikey and The Daily Mail.

Although these online news sites are growing their readerships, their long term financial viability in an Australian media disrupted through the digital revolution is far from assured.  They exist on skeletal staffing and, like News Corp and Fairfax, struggle with algorithm traffic volatility or manipulation on digital platforms.

They are a long way from a mass media influence to replace or rival Fairfax and News Corp across metropolitan and regional Australia.

Yesterday, Mr Paul Keating,  the author of Australia’s cross media prohibition which had prevented TV and print mergers,  blasted Rod Sims and the ACCC.  Mr Sims had relegated the Fairfax mastheads to the “ethical dustbin” of Channel Nine, Mr Keating said.  Mr Keating is well known to hold a visceral hatred of Nine, provoked when it was owned by the late Kerry Packer, with whom he fell out during his prime ministership.

While many Fairfax journalists are deeply distressed at being taken over by an entertainment company and fear that the consolidation will soon result in even more job losses,  Mr Keating’s current complaint comes after the horse has bolted.

And it comes from the man who, with then PM Bob Hawke, defunded the ABC and handed Australia over to “Lord Southcliffe”,  Rupert Murdoch. Mr Murdoch used his power to smear, ridicule or intimidate politicians and any or all  commercial rivals, a practice he took to the UK and the USA.

It is true Mr Keating’s cross media rule did stabilise media ownership in Australia until its abandonment by the Turnbull government last year.  But Australian journalists are still waiting to hear Mr  Keating’s confession that its consequence, perhaps unintended at the time, was to create a media monster:  Rupert Murdoch.

* Quentin Dempster is contributing editor at The New Daily.  An edited version of this article was first posted on November 8. 

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