It’s the latest and arguably the most dramatic episode in the media concentration saga in Australia. This is already among the most concentrated media markets in the world, behind countries like China and Egypt. These developments signal that media diversity policies need a major overhaul to take account of the impact of the media-tech platform giants on traditional news media businesses.
In many ways this by now widely telegraphed process of media convergence has been the strategy of two of Australia’s largest legacy media companies to survive a bit longer against the onslaught of the Silicon Valley FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) behemoths. If approved it will create Australia’s largest media company – and presumably the loudest private media voice with the most political clout in the country.
Many believe that subsuming Fairfax Media will assist in muzzling the edgier, more critical journalism in the group’s mastheads and generally advance an editorial position that is favourable to the government. After all, former Coalition treasurer Peter Costello chairs the Nine board. In the lead-up to a federal election in 2019, the timing could not be better for the conservatives.
The deal, if it goes forward, has also fired the starting gun on a process of further dismantling media in the bush. As print media audiences are reaching their expiry dates, we can expect to see the loss of important local newspapers such as the Newcastle Herald and the Launceston Examiner.
So local, regional and suburban journalism will be among the losers in this convergence of media platforms. Even major metro titles like The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are under a cloud as Fairfax’s more profitable digital media assets, such as the Domain real estate site and streaming service Stan, have become the focus of the business.
However, such a decision by the ACCC would be surprising. That’s because effective media pluralism policy that is capable of addressing these kind of integrated cross-platform deals requires bipartisan support at the highest political levels. That’s not something that tends to happen much in Australian media policy.
Yet the ACCC review and the possibility of regulatory intervention using competition law is the only alternative policy lever available to regulate the adverse consequences of cross-media concentration.
The ACCC inquiry is focusing mainly on market power in relation to advertising on digital platforms. But it is also examining the role of search engines, aggregators and social media platforms and their implications for the production, delivery and consumption of sustainable quality news online.
An issues paper noted that the inquiry would consider “the impact of algorithmic selection on the plurality of news and journalistic content presented to Australian consumers”. Recommendations about the implications of automated news delivery will be critical.
But this new baked-in logic of an automated public sphere is very different to the voice concentration that has arisen out of the calculated deregulation of cross-media laws. As US legal scholar Frank Pasquale argues:
New methods of monitoring and regulation should be as technologically sophisticated and comprehensive as the automated public sphere they target.
Although it is still early days, the regulator is unlikely to stand in the way of media businesses whose rhetoric is all about “scale” and “survival”. In other words, media voice concentration is recast as a second-order issue compared to the survival of these traditional Australian media corporations.
Perhaps that survival duration should be measured in election cycles? Even better, why not look at laws and policies to ensure that the instruments of media policymaking maintain media ownership, pluralism and diversity objectives?
If you value the media’s watchdog role in democracy, then the opening words in the deal enabling Channel Nine to acquire Fairfax Media, the biggest single shake-up of the Australian media in more than 30 years, ring alarm bells.
The opening gambit is an appeal to advertisers, not readers. It promises to enhance “brand” and “scale” and to deliver “data solutions” combined with “premium content”. Exciting stuff for a media business in the digital age. But for a news organisation what is missing are key words like “news”, “journalism” and “public interest”.
Those behind the deal, its political architects who scrapped the cross-media ownership laws last year, and its corporate men, Fairfax’s and Nine’s CEOs, proffer a commercial rather than public interest argument for the merger. They contend that for two legacy media companies to survive into the 21st century, this acquisition is vital.
Perhaps so. But Australia’s democratic health relies on more than a A$4 billion media merger that delivers video streaming services like Stan, a lucrative real estate advertising website like Domain, and a high-rating television program like Love Island.
The news media isn’t just any business. It does more than entertain us and sell us things. Through its journalism, it provides important public interest functions.
Ideally, news should accurately inform Australians. A healthy democracy is predicated on the widest possible participation of an informed citizenry. According to liberal democratic theorists, the news media facilitate informed participation by offering a diverse range of views so that we can make considered choices, especially during election campaigns when we decide who will govern us.
Journalists have other roles too, providing a check on the power of governments and the excesses of the market, to expose abuses that hurt ordinary Australians.
This watchdog role is why I am concerned about Nine merging with Fairfax. To be clear, until last week, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of investigative journalism in Australia.
Newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the Newcastle Herald and the Financial Review have a strong record of using their commercial activities to subsidise expensive investigative journalism to strengthen democratic accountability by exposing wrongdoing. Channel Nine does not.
Since the formation of The Age’s Insight team in 1967, Fairfax investigations have had many important public outcomes after exposing transgressions including: judicial inquiries, criminal charges, high-profile political and bureaucratic sackings, and law reforms. Recent examples include the dogged work of Fairfax and ABC journalists to expose systemic child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and elsewhere, leading to a royal commission and National Redress Scheme for victims. Another was the exposure of dodgy lending practices that cost thousands of Australians their life savings and homes, which also triggered a royal commission.
The problem with Nine’s proposed takeover of Fairfax (if it goes ahead) is that it is unlikely to be “business as usual” for investigative journalism in the new Nine entity. First, there is a cultural misalignment and, with Nine in charge, theirs is likely to dominate.
With notable exceptions such as some 60 Minutes reporting, Nine is better known for its foot-in-the-door muckraking and chequebook journalism than its investigative journalism. In comparison, seven decades of award-winning investigative journalism data reveal Fairfax mastheads have produced more Walkley award-winning watchdog reporting than any other commercial outlet.
Second, even as the financial fortunes of Fairfax have waned in the digital age, it has maintained its award-winning investigative journalism through clever adaptations including cross-media collaborations, mainly with the ABC. This has worked well for both outlets, sharing costs and increasing a story’s reach and impact across print, radio, online and television.
How will this partnership be regarded when Fairfax is Nine’s newlywed? Will the ABC be able to go it alone with the same degree of investigative reporting in light of its successive federal government budget cuts?
Third, my latest research (see graph) has shown that in Australia, as in Britain and the United States, investigative stories and their targets have changed this decade to accommodate newsroom cost-cutting.
Investigations are more likely to focus on stories that are cheaper and easier to pursue. This means some areas such as local politics and industrial relations have fallen off the investigative journalist’s radar. Here and abroad, this reflects cost-cutting and a loss of specialist reporters.
Echoing this, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight editor, Walter Robinson, warned:
There are so many important junctures in life where there is no journalistic surveillance going on. There are too many journalistic communities in the United States now where the newspaper doesn’t have the reporter to cover the city council, the school committee, the mayor’s office … we have about half the number of reporters that we had in the late 1990s. You can’t possibly contend that you are doing the same level or depth of reporting. Too much stuff is just slipping through too many cracks.
Of concern, Australian award-winning investigations already cover a smaller breadth of topics compared to larger international media markets. The merger of Fairfax mastheads with Channel Nine further consolidates Australia’s newsrooms. If investigative journalism continues, story targets are likely to be narrow.
Finally, investigative journalism is expensive. It requires time, resources and, because it challenges power, an institutional commitment to fight hefty lawsuits. Fairfax has a history of defending its investigative reporters in the courts, at great expense.
Will Nine show the same commitment to defending its newly adopted watchdog reporters using earnings from its focus on “brand”, “scale” and “data solutions”? For the sake of democratic accountability, I hope so.
Andrea Carson, Incoming Associate Professor at LaTrobe University. Former Lecturer, Political Science, School of Social and Political Sciences; Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne
Stored somewhere behind the imposing glass edifice of The Age Spencer Street headquarters – keeping up appearances even as the newsroom it trumpets is progressively hacked away – is a cardboard box containing hundreds of envelopes addressed by hand to The Age Independence Committee. Tucked in with them are piles of yellowing forms clipped out of newspapers, with signatures, names and addresses – Doveton and South Yarra, Edithvale and Wheelers Hill, Castlemaine and Korumburra.
Cracking open this modest reliquary might provide some insight into the grief – albeit largely from a certain demographic – flowing from yesterday’s announcement of the passing of the House of Fairfax.
As a young reporter, I handled a good swag of the letters in this box back in 1991 at my desk in the tiny, smoky office of The Age’s storied Insight investigations unit, which in this period moonlighted as the headquarters of The Age Independence Committee. Then The Age was situated a couple of blocks north of its present building. It occupied a brutalist chocolate-brick box in what the columnist John Lahey described as the Siberian quarter of the city, a neighbourhood of “unloved warehouses and 7am sandwich shops”, whipped by a wicked wind off what would become Docklands.
Under the editorship of the venerated Graham Perkin (1966-75), The Age had been famously recognised as one of the world’s dozen great newspapers, acquiring a circulation of over 220,000. The legacy of that had endured the fraught transition of control from Melbourne’s Syme family to the Sydney-based Fairfax stable, and shaped my understanding of journalism. But by the time I gained a long-coveted desk in the ugly building in 1989 I’d missed the best of it, I was assured by old hands and readers.
Any time I introduced myself or sat down to do an interview I braced for the inevitable critique. People professed love for the paper in the way you might love family – with no inhibitions, indeed an enthusiasm, about highlighting flaws and disappointments. The Age had lost some of the panache of the Perkin era and some of the stylish writing nurtured by his successor, Michael Davie, opined media columnist and Melbourne son Sam Lipski in The Bulletin in 1988. That said, under Creighton Burns (my first editor) it had generally become “a steadier and more balanced paper”, he wrote. “Melbourne burghers like that.”
It’s difficult to recall, from this distance, what a potent force the paper was in Melbourne and Victoria. When I try to explain this landscape to my journalism students, they retreat behind that blank, politely suffering look you give nostalgic old people.
In 1988, The Age published a special report titled “Who Shapes Melbourne?” It was the product of weeks of reporting by a team of ten journalists who interviewed dozens of the city’s movers and shakers – an enterprise also beyond the comprehension of my students, raised on a diet of impoverished newsroom budgets. As part of the project, 130 of these doyens were asked to rank Melbourne’s most influential individuals and institutions.
Out of a field of 162 men (overwhelmingly) and women, then Premier John Cain emerged as the individual with the most clout. And of 153 nominated institutions, The Age itself romped into first place ahead of the Arts Centre, the National Gallery and the University of Melbourne (tied in second place); the ACTU (third); the ABC and the Victorian Football League (this was pre-AFL) (fourth) and BHP neck-and-neck with the state cabinet/government (fifth). The tabloid Sun came in sixth, The Herald eighth, alongside the Catholic Church and the police. “Whether The Age really is the most influential institution in Melbourne matters less than the perception, among many of its powerful readers, that it is,” observed Lipski.
“The Age’s role is perplexing,” Phillip Adams (now ABC broadcaster, then advertising guru) told another Bulletin reporter, Jan McGuinness, in a 1989 dig into its place in the Melbourne firmament, archly headlined “A pillow of the community” and featuring a photograph of the Syme family mausoleum captioned “a palace under siege”. “The Melbourne Herald hasn’t had a role in my lifetime; the Melbourne Sun does its job, yet has no image,” Adams expanded. “But The Age is tied to Melbourne’s self-esteem. And, as there isn’t much of that left, it’s very important.”
Commentators may have struggled to explain the enduring gravitas of the paper, but enjoyed pricking its pomposity along the way. A special report in The Australian – “Flaws in the Fairfax formula” (April 23 1991) – listed its sins as “self-indulgence, independence, tradition, superiority”.
The article pokes around the cultural ethos of The Age, contrasting it with The Sydney Morning Herald. The Melbourne paper had long cut its cloth in a more “Whiggish” style, it argued, despite serving a more conservative city. It quotes an unnamed senior Fairfax staffer who had worked at both mastheads. “You’ve got to remember that at the Eureka stockade The Age supported the miners while The Sydney Morning Herald supported the police – the Herald has always been the drapers’ paper.”
The same article quotes a young merchant banker, one Malcolm Turnbull, verbatim and at length, arguing “there is a great deal of sanctimoniousness about journalistic independence”, and that newspapers needed to be disciplined in their exercise of independence. “Why is it that Fairfax journalists believe a proprietor can have no hand in the editorial management but a journalist can? As long as the proprietor is acting honestly and responsibly, why can he not?”
When this article ran, John Fairfax Holdings Ltd was in receivership and the odds were high that The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review and other mastheads would soon be sold. Circulation and revenue from the classified “rivers of gold” were still bountiful, the technology that would steal them still evolving out of sight. But the fortunes and vulnerabilities of the paper were being pored over thanks to “Young” Warwick Fairfax’s disastrous play to privatise the publicly listed media empire on the eve of the 1987 stockmarket crash.
Maintain Your Age
The Age’s Charter of Editorial Independence – the first document of its type in Australia – emerged when British press tycoon Robert Maxwell took a run at the paper in 1988. Age employees banded together to defend the ethos of the masthead, and generous column space was given to reports and opinion pieces explaining to readers the implications of such a sale for editorial integrity and independence. As journalists organised and fortified, mercifully they could not have known this was merely the first skirmish in a 30-year siege to which the Fairfax name suddenly succumbed with a note to the markets just two mornings ago.
“A newspaper cannot function effectively, cannot put the readers first, if the editor and his staff always have their ears cocked to hear what the proprietor wants,” wrote former editor Michael Davie. The newly formed independence committee reached out to readers for support, establishing a fighting fund, which bought a banner advertisement declaring: “The Age must continue to present the news honestly and without fear or favour. It must not become an organ to peddle the views of a person, a political party, or an interest group.”
And here’s where the letters in the cardboard box come in, a small surviving sample of pre-internet clicktivism, requiring scissors, a stamp and a trip to the mailbox. Thousands of coupons poured in over a couple of campaigns, many with encouraging notes and $5 and $10 notes and cheques attached. The operation to save The Age and its editorial culture was coordinated by Insight chief and associate editor David Wilson, the committee’s chargé de mission and hustler, lobbying powerbrokers, opinion-shapers and glitterati for their support. Like so many others in this story, Wilson is deceased, but my recollection from hours listening to him work the phones was that he rarely encountered anything but enthusiasm for the cause, even as he copped no-holds-barred commentary on all that was wrong with the paper.
But his fondest recruit was surgeon and POW Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, who apparently on initial approach assumed the campaign was concerned with elderly rights, but who nonetheless threw himself wholeheartedly behind The Age because that was a good cause too.
The paper was then facing a takeover by a consortium led by Canadian mogul Conrad Black (later jailed) and Australia’s Kerry Packer. Thousands of readers marched up Collins Street. Whitlam moved a motion calling on the Hawke Labor government to do everything possible to prevent further media concentration and foreign ownership. Fraser seconded it.
As the columnist Bob Millington had reflected in a piece rifling through the “Maintain Your Age” mailbag, “if politics makes strange bedfellows, defending a newspaper brings an even stranger, yet wonderful, collection of people together”. Over these early years the campaign enlisted support from individuals you could not imagine having any more in common than a football team (it is, after all, Melbourne). BHP chairman Sir James Balderstone, historian Professor Manning Clark, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, Victorian Farmers Federation chief Heather Mitchell, former Victorian premiers John Cain and Sir Rupert Hamer, philanthropist and prisons campaigner Dame Phyllis Frost, Greens leader Bob Brown and RSL president Bruce Ruxton.
And then there were the coupon signers. Millington unearthed coupons and cheques from descendants of the Syme family and a 12-year-old boy from Brighton. Readers in Albury, Rosanna and Bentleigh declared their decades of subscription, the prize for longevity going to Mrs Florence Williams of St Kilda who “says she reads The Age from cover to cover each day. Mrs Williams will be 99 next Wednesday”. Bless her, and Millo, (both departed), but Mrs Williams represents the extreme end of a once rusted-on and apparently worthless demographic, which the enterprise has long since jettisoned.
A certain hollowness
The box of letters sat under my desk when we revived the independence committee a decade ago as we tried to defend the spirit of the charter from the storm of the great disruption. We wearily dusted off and enlisted the old tactics, reaching out to influencers and readers, this time using the infinitely more powerful tools of the same cybersphere that was eating us alive. The response was gratifying, but had a certain hollowness. Was it real, or just an echo?
As efforts crank up to defend Fairfax’s editorial tradition, if not its name, when it is consumed by Nine, I’m all too aware that the institutional journalism that defines my generation and my imagination has all but vanished. When I summon up Fairfax in talking journalism with my students, for me it’s this great warts-and-all beast with a proud history, noble ambition and organic connection to its community; for them it’s a limp tagline in their feed.
Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood yesterday tried to assure journalists that “there will be plenty of Fairfax Media DNA in the merged company and the board”. I hope so, because the remaining journalists and editors continue to produce stories of extraordinary calibre with little time and ever diminishing resources. But I wondered, given the vanishing of the masthead’s resonance in their lives, whether the community Fairfax served has already been lost, and might only be retrieved by extracting DNA from the coupons in the box, like extinct creatures out of amber.
“Where do you get your news?” I asked my students on Monday, as I do at the beginning of every semester. “Twitter” one of them replied. No, actually, you don’t.
Jo Chandler was a journalist at The Age from 1989-2012, and a former chair of the Age Independence Committee.
Competition and co-operation. The former may seem an obvious aspect of the Australian media landscape, but it has always gone hand-in-hand with pragmatic co-operation.
Since the 1920s, the Packer and Murdoch media companies have been entwined with the oldest of Australia’s “old media” firms, Fairfax Media, which has its origins in the 1841 endeavours of printer and journalist John Fairfax.
When a young Frank Packer and his business partner, former Queensland Labor Premier and federal Treasurer E.G. Theodore , re-launched the Sydney Telegraph as the Daily Telegraph in 1936, the Dickensian Sydney Morning Herald responded by hiring new editorial staff, using more pictures, encouraging tighter writing, and improving its coverage of horse racing.
For decades the two newspapers – The Telegraph a tabloid from 1942, and the Herald with (finally) news on its front page from 1944 – vied for scoops.
But while there was genuine competition for news supremacy, the Telegraph repeatedly tried and failed to break the Fairfax company’s stranglehold on classified advertising, the famous “rivers of gold” that fuelled the Herald until that great disrupter, the internet.
Even if the Fairfaxes, and Sir Keith Murdoch in Melbourne, failed to regard the pugnacious Packer as a gentleman, there was a kind of gentlemanly code of honour, and understanding, between the knights of the Australian media.
When Christmas choristers performed “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” outside his Bellevue Hill mansion, Sir Frank offered them money to go down the road and perform “Hark! The Telegraph Angels Sing” outside Sir Warwick Fairfax’s residence.
Early competition between the three groups focused on daily and Sunday newspapers, and magazines, but their expanding media interests also led to co-operative agreements.
Before the Australian Broadcasting Control Board’s 1958 hearings for applications for television licences in Brisbane and Adelaide, the main Sydney and Melbourne television proprietors – Packer, “Rags” Henderson from Fairfax, and Sir John Williams from the Herald and Weekly Times – met at Fairfax headquarters to “carve up the empire”. They agreed to combine their interests to ensure an equitable program-sharing arrangement if there should only be one licence awarded in each city.
In 1960 Murdoch’s only son, Rupert, entered Sydney by the back door by buying the suburban newspaper chain Cumberland Newspapers for £1 million. Vowing not to let this invasion go unchallenged, Fairfax and Packer contributed equal capital to form a new joint company, Suburban Publications.
Vigorous, at times farcical, competition between the two companies did not last; as Fairfax historian Gavin Souter noted, “war was being waged in the suburbs, but it was limited war”.
In 1961 Cumberland Newspapers and Suburban Publications concluded a non-compete agreement that would not have been permitted under the Trade Practices Act that became law in 1974.
By the 1960s the press tentacles of Fairfax, Packer and Murdoch had stretched into radio, television and newsprint, if with different emphases.
Fairfax Media was a titan, not just in Sydney, as it launched the Australian Financial Review nationally in 1951, purchased the Canberra Times in 1964, and secured a major interest in The Age in 1966. It also controlled the powerful Macquarie radio network (headed by 2GB) and ATN7 (Sydney’s Channel Seven). Fairfax figures appeared on Channel Seven current affairs programs, while TCN9 and GTV9 in Melbourne were known as the Packer/Telegraph stations.
In 1972 Sir Frank finally acceded to the pressure of his sons, Clyde and Kerry, to sell the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited now had the “economies of scale” that came with publishing an afternoon newspaper (the Daily Mirror) as well as a morning newspaper.
In 1990, young Warwick Fairfax’s disastrous bid to privatise John Fairfax & Sons resulted in the Herald and associated interests being lost to the family.
Kerry’s son, James, chose the timing of his family’s exit from the media, selling off Australian Consolidated Press and Channel Nine to private equity between 2006 and 2012.
Now, following last year’s changes to media control and diversity rules, Nine and Fairfax Media have “merged”. It seems more like a takeover, with 51.1% of equity to be held by Nine. The CEO, Hugh Marks and chair of the board, another former Treasurer, in this case Liberal Peter Costello, will come from Nine. The new company will be known as NEC (Nine Entertainment Co.).
If shareholders and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission approve the transaction, the Fairfax name will be gone from the Australian media.
Two companies, with very different histories and cultures, will be forced to work together in the never-ending search for efficiencies and revenue in a brutal landscape for newspapers, magazines and television.
Frank and Kerry Packer (whose 1990s attempt to gain control of John Fairfax & Sons was stymied) are no doubt dancing a jig in heaven (or in hell), as the television company they founded is on the cusp of gaining control of the press assets they envied. Rupert Murdoch remains Australia’s last media titan.
On this landmark day for the Australian media, I can report one unqualified piece of good news.
After years of uncertainty and negotiations, the Fairfax Media Archive has been acquired and sorted by the State Library of New South Wales. More than 2,100 boxes of priceless material, ranging across the press, radio and television, and the dynasty, companies, outlets and workers, are now accessible to researchers.
While the focus is principally on the period before 1991, the collection will in time presumably document what led to what was quickly dubbed, by social media, the #NineFairfax deal.
Paul Keating, architect of the Hawke government’s cross-media rules, has called on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to put the Nine-Fairfax merger under “high scrutiny”, and declared Nine has the “ethics of an alley cat”.
In a scathing statement, Keating said the takeover was “an exceptionally bad development”.
If Nine had a majority of the stock, as announced, it “will run the editorial policy,” he said.
Keating said that for more than half a century, Nine had never done other than display “the opportunism and ethics of an alley cat.
“There has been no commanding ethical or moral basis for the conduct of its news and information policy. Through various changes of ownership, no one has lanced the carbuncle at the centre of Nine’s approach to news management. And, as sure as night follows day, that pus will inevitably leak into Fairfax.
“For the country, this is a great pity”.
The government last year liberalised the media law, facilitating more concentration.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed the announcement and said the parties did not expect it to face any regulatory hurdles.
“I think bringing them together will strengthen both of them.” he said. Television, online and print journalism was a “very tough, competitive environment nowadays”.
“The arrival all of the online news services has made the media so much more competitive than it used to be, whether it’s the competition for newspapers or whether it’s the competition in the television area with streaming services like Netflix,” Turnbull said.
“So I think bringing them together enables two strong Australian brands with great, very long traditions to be able to be more secure. So on that basis I welcome it”.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said the government’s “historic media reforms” had “created an environment where Australian media organisations have a wider range of options as to how they combine in order to support their viability to ensure that they survive” in the age of the internet.
But Keating said the media free-for-all the Turnbull government was permitting under its new law would “result in an effective and dramatic close down in diversity and with it, opinion’.
“It is true that the technology has brought myriad voices to a public eager for diversity of information.
“But the atomisation of web-based content, much of it other than local, cannot in terms of impact, be compared with the big local media players, particularly in consolidations of the kind announced today.”
The “takeover of Fairfax by Channel Nine will change the news landscape of Australia altogether.”
Keating said that notwithstanding the disruption caused by international platforms such as Google and Facebook “the answer for Australia is diversity of income streams for Australia’s majors and not a closedown in news and content with major print being taken over by major television”.
Keating has had some major run ins with Fairfax over the years. But he had a different tone towards it on Thursday.
“Fairfax spent decades missing all the signals about the rise of the digital economy when it could have put itself in a position of relative commercial independence.
“That notwithstanding, the current management has, in the circumstances, done a better than reasonable job in creating income sources to allow the company to preserve its editorial independence, especially in print.”
Keating said that if the government really had its way, Australia would face this much closed down landscape without the ABC being an independent national broadcaster.
“On competition grounds and that of the imperative of local diversity, the Competition Commissioner should put this proposal under high scrutiny,” Keating said.
He said that while the web brought increased diversity “the big wholesalers of news and information in Australia have always had the dominant impact. They have been the big dogs on the block. Today’s announcement means that in future, they will operate as a pack.
“The cross-media rule at least split that dominance, giving the community various streams and alternatives within which to think. Today’s announced takeover of Fairfax by Channel Nine brings the big wholesalers back with a vengeance. And with it, were it to be permitted, a major shutting in of diversity”.
Labor’s communications shadows, Michelle Rowland and Stephen Jones said: “Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. This proposed merger means it is about to get even more concentrated.”
It meant public broadcaters, the ABC and SBS, had never been more important, they said.
It means the death of Fairfax and is the most consequential change in Australian media ownership in 31 years.
It also means that three of Australia’s best and biggest newspapers – The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review – are now subsumed into a media conglomerate whose editorial culture is characterised by mediocre journalism.
Nine’s news bulletins consist largely of police stories with a tincture of politics, and highlights of colourful or violent events overseas.
Its current affairs program, A Current Affair, is a formulaic procession of stories about consumer rorts and personal tragedies.
So there is a huge question mark over the future editorial quality of the newspapers.
A particularly pressing question is: what will happen to The Age’s investigative unit?
It is led by two of the best investigative reporters Australia has produced, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker.
In addition to breaking an extraordinary range of major stories on subjects like organised crime and scandals in the banking industry, they have developed a highly successful collaboration with the ABC’s Four Corners team.
It seems very unlikely Nine would allow this collaboration to continue, since it involves a rival television channel.
There is also a question about editorial independence.
Fairfax has a charter of editorial independence, which all owners since 1990 have signed up to. Will Nine sign up to it? Will the charter have any meaning when the newspapers are owned by a company whose chairman, Peter Costello, was treasurer in the Liberal-National Coalition government of former Prime Minister John Howard?
The answers to these questions will not be known for some time. They will depend largely on who is given editorial control of the combined operation. Since the Nine CEO, Hugh Marks, is to be CEO of the combined operation, it seems more likely than not that it will be a Nine executive who calls the editorial shots, too.
The takeover also means a further loss of diversity in an already highly concentrated media-ownership landscape. The big players are now down to four: News Corp, Nine, Seven West Media and the ABC.
And it is almost certain to mean the loss of yet more journalists’ jobs.
Since 2012, more than 3,000 jobs have been lost across Australian journalism. Yet, if the takeover is really going to represent “compelling value” for shareholders, as Fairfax chairman Nick Falloon says, then newsroom “synergies” – to borrow the corporate jargon – are likely to be essential.
The Fairfax company’s death throes have been painful and prolonged.
They began in 1987, when the younger son of Sir Warwick Fairfax, “young Warwick”, privatised it. That meant buying out all the public shareholders, for which purpose “young Warwick” borrowed AU$1.6 billion from the National Australia Bank.
Even with the revenue from the “rivers of gold” then flowing in from the classified ads of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, “young Warwick” could not meet his debts to the bank, which promptly sold him up.
In a highly politicised auction, during which Paul Keating and the then-Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, sought assurances from prospective buyers concerning political outlook, the company fell into the hands of a London-based Canadian, Conrad Black.
There followed a procession of ownership changes, board reshuffles and short-lived chief executives that left the company rudderless and vulnerable.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium, when the digital revolution began to engulf the media, a weakened and incompetently managed Fairfax was ill-equipped to respond.
A series of disastrous mistakes by successive boards resulted in Fairfax missing out on opportunities to buy into the new online advertising platforms in cars, jobs and real estate.
Hubris and arrogance led incumbent board members to believe that these markets could not function without the mountains of classified advertisements carried by The Age and Herald on Saturdays.
By 2005, the shift in revenue to online platforms was discernible, and the trend has been accelerating ever since.
As a result, the company was increasingly unable to meet the demands of the share market for profit growth, and so became the object of sustained takeover speculation.
When the federal government changed the laws in September last year to allow once again cross-media ownership between newspapers, radio, television and online, speculation about a merger between Nine and Fairfax grew stronger.
Today that speculation became a reality.
The Fairfax story has all the elements of Greek tragedy: heroism in the creation of the company, then a combination of comedy, pride, stupidity, greed, arrogance and hubris to bring it down.
The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
This is an oft-used quote by one of the Founding Fathers and the third US president, Thomas Jefferson. He penned it in 1787 in a letter to soldier and politician Edward Carrington – 230 years ago. That’s how long the concept of the need for independent scrutiny of power has been around.
And this is why we should care deeply about the suggested cuts of 125 editorial staff at Fairfax Media, publisher of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Australian Financial Review.
These cuts are the latest in several redundancy rounds. Editorial staff reacted on Wednesday by going on a seven-day strike. The journalists are doing this at great risk: the strike is classified as unprotected industrial action, and they risk losing their jobs.
The journalists, though, have clearly had enough. The latest savings round is the last straw in creating an unsustainable workplace and journalistic environment.
Those left in the newsroom after the cuts will be asked to produce more content for more publishing platforms, further diluting the journalism created. This undermines the core Fairfax business model of providing quality and in-depth journalism – including investigative reporting – that can be summarised as public-interest journalism.
Imagine an Australia where clickbait and trivial content rules, and public-interest journalism has died due to lack of funding. The Australian public would likely be unaware of the following:
the maltreatment of inmates at the Don Dale youth prison.
These examples are just from the last few years. A full inventory of the revelations by Australian investigative journalists in recent decades would create a list several pages long.
Many of the malpractices revealed in these stories should have been discovered and dealt with by government watchdogs. For various reasons, political or financial, they were not. But without in-depth journalism, these issues would still be unknown – and corrupt and dishonest individuals still in their jobs.
Is this really what Australians want?
Picture a world in which politicians are given free rein to communicate only their good news stories, and no proper scrutiny or accountability of them existed. And a world in which the corporate sector was not questioned about its lobbying efforts of government, and no-one independently monitored if their production polluted the environment.
Imagine, for a moment, if there were no independent journalists left to decipher PR spin.
Doesn’t sound too good, does it?
What for alternative funding models?
At the core of the current funding crisis for public-interest journalism in Australia and globally sits the collapse of the old advertising business model caused by digital disruption.
It is now clear that the so-called “rivers of gold” advertising revenue supporting the growth of large newsrooms from the 1950s until now is at an end. In retrospect, it seems this golden era of high-profit margin media companies based on journalism was a historical anomaly.
It is unclear what the new business model is. So, how do we fund public-interest journalism?
Clearly, the market cannot do it on its own. You could say the market model has failed, but that’s too harsh. We probably had unrealistic expectations.
The market model will, most likely, make up one part of the funding. But some other options worthy of serious discussion are:
Making sure we keep funding the ABC properly so it can carry public-interest journalism while market-funded journalism transitions.
Australian governments have to take the funding crisis in journalism seriously. In other parts of the world, like Scandinavia and France, governments have already acknowledged the importance of supporting public-interest journalism via tax breaks, subsidies and other measures. If Australian governments ignore this, they clearly disagree with Thomas Jefferson.
Altruistic funding. This is easier said than done in Australia, which does not have the US tradition that sees wealthy individuals and foundations backing entire legacy news organisations and funding start-up and established public interest journalism. It is time for Australia’s super wealthy to step up and fund public interest journalism.
The funding issue won’t go away. It is high time Australia had a serious discussion about the democratic consequences and what should be done to tackle the current situation.
Senator Nick Xenophon is trying to start this discussion. He should be commended. For the health of Australian democracy, his fellow elected representatives ought to listen.
The choice is quite clear: do we want cat video journalism only? Or do we want it mixed with the odd disclosure of corruption and malpractice, and in-depth journalism that explains society to itself?