July 30, 2018

The view from Billinudgel

Greg Hywood: the model modern chief executive

By Mungo MacCallum


How Fairfax became a business at journalism’s expense

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 takeover bid for the company, which ended in disaster.

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 hack at The Australian Financial Review before moving up to the executive suites.

But on the way he became imbued with the spirit of Fin Reviewism, an early form of neoliberalism 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 a business that 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) to an alarming degree, 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 Nine may well bring that to an end – even on their worst days, The Age and the SMH seldom, if ever, plumbed the depths of the kind of current affairs that revolve around stunts, chequebook 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 from not only the government but also the commercial media, who like to blame it for their own shortcomings.

Funding cuts at the ABC have been serious, but until now they have 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 everyone for their 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 $8 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.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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