Thursday, July 26, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Vale Fairfax
Nine’s takeover ends a 177-year history

As I file, the remaining Fairfax Media journalists are dragging themselves to their nth sombre briefing from CEO Greg Hywood, as they have been doing for the best part of a decade. They will be hoping against hope that they will be able to keep doing the job they love, and contemplating what that might mean under new management at Nine. The death of Fairfax has been pronounced so many times that we are nearly numb to it. But today’s announced Nine takeover, if it completes, really will mark the end of a 177-year history, and is a heavy blow for quality, independent journalism and for media diversity in this country. The fact that the takeover is the entirely predictable consequence of a shabby, last-minute deal on cross-media ownership laws late last year, and that the prime minister has welcomed it, is just more salt in the wound.

Why wouldn’t Turnbull be pleased? Politically, with former treasurer Peter Costello in the chair at Nine, it is great news for the Coalition, knocking out a perceived source of centre-left reportage. Fairfax was already shifting determinedly rightwards, and that tendency will surely accelerate at Nine, regardless of whether or not the new board accepts the Fairfax charter of editorial independence. But the real diversity issue is less about perceived left–right skew – most journalists worth their salt aim at objectivity – than it is about upmarket versus downmarket, commercial versus pure news values. It is a long time since Nine’s heyday under Kerry Packer, who did invest in quality journalism, and had accomplished executives like David Leckie and Peter Meakin backing hard-hitting news and current affairs. According to former 60 Minutes producer Gerald Stone in his book Who Killed Channel 9?, after Leckie fell out with Packer and both he and Meakin went to Seven, the Nine network’s culture was ruined by the likes of former SMH editor John Alexander, who took over from 2002. Shortly before his death in 2005, Packer complained “they stuffed the place up”. Once the accountants took over with James Packer’s top-of-the-market selldown to private equity fund CVC in 2006 – in the last round of media mergers – the newsroom has only shrank, like legacy media everywhere.

Having laid off hundreds of journalists during Hywood’s time as chief executive – (ahem) disclosure: including me – Fairfax now is also a shadow of its former self. By constantly cutting costs, selling Trade Me, spinning off Domain, and setting up Stan with Channel Nine, Hywood has done a great job of fixing the company’s debt and stabilising its share price. But as late great investigative journalist Ben Hills, who wrote a book on the wrecking of Fairfax, used to say: Hywood saved the company, but killed the papers. The truth is, it is miraculous and a tribute to the dedicated staff that the papers have continued to publish to the standard they have, for so long, under such never-ending cuts. There are no headcount figures in today’s announcement, but with $50 million in savings expected from the merger, it can be assumed that journalists’ jobs will go, and what’s the bet that, with Nine in full control, the Fairfax side of the deal will bear the brunt of it when the axe falls. What that means for the public is less quality journalism, and a less robust democracy. The future looks grim for Fairfax’s rural and regional titles, and for joint ABC–Fairfax investigations like Four Corners’ exposé “Banking Bad”, which more than anything triggered the financial services royal commission.

Independent commentary today, from Crikey [$] to The Conversation to The Guardian to Inside Story, is almost unanimous: this is an outright takeover, not a merger, and there is little cultural “fit” between Nine and Fairfax, although journalists in both companies will no doubt be trying to look on the bright side and make a fist of it. According to chief Hugh Marks, Nine is mainly interested in Stan and Domain, not the mastheads, although Nine said today that there were no plans to close the newspapers. Yet.

Journalists union the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has called on the ACCC to reject the deal on competition grounds, but most analysts expect it to sail through. Labor opposed the abolition of the cross-media laws that prevented such a merger between a print and television business, but today shadow communications spokesperson Michelle Rowland stopped short of opposing the deal, simply expressing concern about continuing media concentration. Which will only continue, as speculation turns to a deal between Seven and News Corp.

Paul Keating has this afternoon denounced the deal as “exceptionally bad”, saying [$] that Nine has the “ethics of an alley cat”. Esteemed Fairfax journalists like Kate McClymont have tweeted [$] their anger. Hywood says there will be plenty of Fairfax Media DNA in the new company. Which sounds ominous: DNA, after all, is not visible to the naked eye. 

Vale Fairfax.

since this morning

The Australian reports [$] that Anthony Albanese has given his “absolute” guarantee he will not challenge Bill Shorten’s leadership as Labor faces the potential loss of up to two seats at this weekend’s Super Saturday by-elections.

An exclusive report obtained [$] by Crikey shows that current concern around the government’s My Health Record rollout could have been avoided had the Department of Health addressed the issues raised in its own consultation period.

Meanwhile, the Herald Sun reports [$] that Health Minister Greg Hunt is preparing to back down on the controversial My Health Record and will strengthen privacy provisions, as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten considers opting out of the record.

Australian businessman Dick Smith has blamed Aldi’s “extreme capitalism” for the demise of his food business, which he says is closing in order to avoid bankruptcy.


The Australian reports [$] that federal Labor has rejected Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee, declaring its “pathetic’’ emissions cuts will stifle renewable energy investment.

Global credit ratings agency S&P Global Ratings has released a damning [$] assessment of the National Broadband Network’s long-term commercial viability, saying a politically damaging government write-down is now “inevitable”.

An international koala conservation group plans to take the Queensland government to court for being too slow to protect the koala and for what it describes as “politically sanctioned extinction”, according to the Brisbane Times.

by Eric Beecher
The death of Fairfax and the end of newspapers
Where is the journalism we need going to come from now?

by Micheline Lee
The art of dependency
The NDIS promised choice and control

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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