It has been quite a week for race-laden discourse in the Australian media.
There was Blair Cottrell, a notorious pro-Hitler extremist, appearing on Sky News and calling for a race-based immigration policy.
There was Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun sounding the tocsin about how “there is no ‘us’ anymore”, how Australia was being overwhelmed by a “tidal wave of immigration” and ethnic “colonies”: Jews, Indians, Chinese, Muslims, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Italians.
A speech in London last month by Alan Tudge, Australia’s minister for citizenship and multiculturalism, resurfaced in which he said Australia was veering into ethnic separatism on the “European” model.
Reporting material that risks marginalising or stigmatising groups in the community on grounds of race presents the media with a difficult ethical dilemma, balancing free speech against harm.
Concerning Cottrell, the starting point is to recognise that hate speech and racism are his stock in trade. He is entitled to express his views, but the media are under no obligation to give him a platform to amplify them.
That Sky did so seems to have been a case of what Soutphommasane calls “the monetisation of racism”: that is, using racism as a way to attract interest, increasing ratings and adding advertising value to a program.
However, in this respect it backfired. American Express, Specsavers and the nappy-maker Huggies have suspended advertising on Sky in protest against Cottrell’s appearance. Yesterday, Victorian Transport Minister Jacinta Allan announced she had directed Melbourne’s Metro Trains to remove @skynewsaustralia from all station screens in the CBD.
A further dilemma for the rest of the media, including The Conversation, is that while these events are clearly a matter of public interest and therefore have to be ventilated, we play into the hands of Sky by giving it free publicity.
For an outfit like Sky – as with a fading celebrity – all publicity is good publicity, except if you get their name wrong.
Tudge presents a different problem. While the media are under no obligation to give the likes of Cottrell a platform, when the minister responsible for multiculturalism warns that Australia is veering into ethnic separatism, there is a clear duty to report it.
Tudge was not specific about what “separatist” group he was talking about, but from the context of his speech he seemed to be singling out Muslims, referring to sharia law and female genital mutilation. Inflammatory stuff.
It is a curious fact that while Australia’s immigration intake has been increasing, the minister responsible for citizenship and multicultural policy should be making inflammatory remarks about “ethnic separatism”.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports
that net overseas migration reflected an annual gain of 262,500 persons in 2016-17, 27.3% (56,300) more than in 2015-16.
As it happens, Tudge’s London speech came just three months after a debate in Britain over what was referred to as the “weaponising” of racism for political gain.
The debate was provoked by BBC Radio 4’s decision in April to mark the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech by broadcasting it in its entirety, read by an actor.
Powell was a Conservative MP who represented Wolverhampton, a Midlands city with a large population of West Indian and South Asian immigrants.
Speaking to Conservative Party members in Birmingham, Powell referred to an observation by one of his Wolverhampton constituents that “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.
Powell, who was a classics scholar, ended his speech with a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which a sybil, or prophetess, warns Aeneas that Italy will be plunged into civil war, and she sees “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.
Recognising the toxic potential of this analogy, Conservatives leader Edward Heath sacked Powell from his shadow cabinet, effectively ending Powell’s political career.
No such fate seems likely to befall Alan Tudge.
However, on August 6, Soutphommasane sounded a warning of his own, referring explicitly to Tudge’s remarks.
“Race politics is back,” he said. “Right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia.
“Five years ago … I wouldn’t have expected that the biggest threats to racial harmony would come from within our parliaments and from sections of our media. Yet here we are.”
Soutphommasane said these developments had made some groups in society feel more vulnerable, sown division in the community and forced the targets of it into retreat. “Where the seeds of racism are planted in political speech, they bear bitter fruit in society.”
In response, Tudge suggested Soutphommasane was avoiding discussing genuine concerns about integration.
Soutphommasane did not confine his criticism to politicians. He accused sections of the media of responding to the financial pressures induced by the digital revolution by using racism as part of their business model.
“Faced with competition from a proliferation of news and entertainment sources, some media outlets are using racial controversies to grab attention – as a means of clinging on to their audiences.”
He referred specifically to Sky and Bolt.
In covering these stories, journalists have an ethical duty to minimise the risk of harm and act responsibly.
In straight news reportage, they can do this by seeking out and including alternatives to the racist perspective. This may provide at least some antidote to the poison.
They can also seek comment from communities targeted by racist discourse, thus giving them a voice and perhaps helping to mitigate any sense of isolation.
In commentaries, they can frame the article in a way that is explicitly or implicitly disapproving.
Reporting or commenting on racist discourse is one thing. Creating it is quite another.
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
The people who are turning up at Save the ABC rallies around the country are defending a cultural institution they value because they trust it.
In particular, they trust its news service. Public opinion polls going back to the 1950s consistently show it is by far the most trusted in the country.
So at this time it is pertinent to look at what creates a trustworthy news service. The cornerstone is editorial independence. As opinion polls have shown time and again, where people suspect a newspaper, radio, TV or online news service of pushing some commercial or political interest, their level of trust falls.
Editorial independence does not mean giving journalists licence to broadcast or publish whatever they want or to avoid accountability for their mistakes.
It means encouraging journalists to tackle important stories regardless of what people in power might think, then backing them to make judgments based on news values and the public interest, not on irrelevant considerations such as commercial, financial or political pressure.
Editorial independence is hard won and under constant pressure from outside the newsroom.
In commercial media, this pressure comes from big advertisers or company bosses with financial or political interests to push.
In public-sector broadcasting, the pressure comes from the federal government, which provides the funding and has powerful means of subjecting the broadcaster to intense political pressure.
A robust editorial leadership is essential to resisting this heat. It’s a daily battle. If the senior editorial management wilts, the weakness is swiftly transmitted down the hierarchy.
Middle-level editors and the staff journalists who work to them start looking over their shoulders, tempted to take easy options and avoid possible heat. The easiest option is self-censorship, dodging sensitive stories, leaving out material or watering it down.
This is where the ABC is at a crossroads. It has as its managing director and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie, a person with no journalistic background and who until recently showed scant signs of understanding the impact on the ABC’s editorial independence of the Turnbull government’s relentless bullying.
Then last month she gave a speech at the Melbourne Press Club in which she said Australians regard the ABC as a great national institution and deeply resent it being used as “a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.
It was a start, and now the cause has been taken up by ABC staff themselves and by the wider public in the Save the ABC movement led by ABC Friends.
It is strongly reminiscent of events at The Age nearly 30 years ago, when I was an associate editor there. Then, a Save The Age campaign showed how effective a public outpouring of support for a news outlet can be when they set out to defend one they trust.
The campaign’s origins lay in concerns among senior journalists at the paper over what might happen to its editorial independence when receivers were appointed in 1990. This followed a disastrous attempt by “young” Warwick Fairfax to privatise the Fairfax company, which was the paper’s owner.
A group of senior journalists, including the late David Wilson and the distinguished business writer Stephen Bartholomeusz, formed The Age Independence Committee. It drew up a charter of editorial independence.
The key passages stated that:
the proprietors acknowledge that journalists, artists and photographers must record the affairs of the city, state, nation and the world fairly, fully and regardless of any commercial, political or personal interests, including those of any proprietors, shareholders or board members
full editorial control of the newspaper, within a negotiated, fixed budget, is vested in the editor
the editor alone decides the editorial content, and controls the hiring, firing and deployment of editorial staff.
The Save The Age campaign generated tremendous public support. Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, who had barely been on speaking terms since the Dismissal 15 years earlier, joined together at the head of a public demonstration in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. One of the campaign slogans was “Maintain Your Age”, a pun on Whitlam’s post-Dismissal election slogan, “Maintain Your Rage”.
Eventually, the receivers signed the charter and so, after some wrangling, did the new owners led by the Canadian-born newspaper baron, Conrad Black. Black is gone but the charter remains.
Like The Age in 1990, the ABC today has strong public support.
Like The Age in 1990, senior journalistic staff, most notably the Melbourne “Mornings” radio presenter Jon Faine, and former presenter of 7.30 on ABC TV, Kerry O’Brien, have shown leadership, lending their profile and authority to the cause.
But unlike The Age, the ABC does not have publicly acknowledged bipartisan political support.
Whatever Malcolm Turnbull’s private views of the ABC, and whatever the stated policy of his government, the facts are that since 2014 the Abbott and Turnbull governments have cut $338 million from the ABC’s funding, and the federal council of the Liberal Party voted last month to sell it off.
It is quite possible that when it reports in September, the present inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality will provide some impetus to this proposition or propose some other ways to clip the ABC’s wings.
It is significant in the context of editorial independence that the inquiry is taking a particular interest in the ABC news service. That is the part of the ABC most detested by politicians, and on which the present government has focused its most intense pressure.
If editorial independence weakens, public trust will weaken too. That would make the ABC an even more attractive political target for a hostile government.
ABC chairman Justin Milne has gone on the offensive against the organisation’s critics, linking the public broadcaster to preserving the nation’s identity and strongly warning against the push to clip its digital wings.
Putting the present battle over the broadcaster in an historical context, Milne said in a Wednesday speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia that “Australia has reached another decision point in respect of public broadcasting, just like those of the past.
“The first was whether to establish an ABC, then whether to equip it to deliver a news service independent of the commercial media barons, then once again whether to invest in a public television service.
“And now, as we enter a digital age, Australia must decide whether it wants an ABC fit for the future, and if so, what investments the nation is willing to make to achieve that.”
Milne – who was appointed chair by Malcolm Turnbull – said that “in a world of global platforms and content, it has never been more important for Australia to retain its identity.
“And in a world of contested views and facts, it has never been more important to provide an independent and trusted voice, to promote informed democratic debate, and to drive public accountability through investments in investigative journalism.”
With reviews into the ABC underway on its competitive neutrality and efficiency, Milne said that, echoing the past, some rivals have suggested the ABC be banned from providing digital services and restricted to linear radio and television.
“Let’s be clear: if the ABC were barred from serving audiences on digital platforms, it would wither away and cease to exist. Linear broadcast audiences are in steady decline because Australians, just like people everywhere else on the planet, value the convenience of consuming their favourite content whenever, wherever and however they like.”
The competitive neutrality review, which was set up as part of a deal with Pauline Hanson, is looking at the ABC’s role in the modern media environment. An efficiency review of the public broadcasters, including SBS, was announced in May, when the budget froze the ABC’s funding until 2022, for a saving of $83.7 million.
Milne said complaints about the ABC’s coverage were taken seriously, because mistakes were made. But the biggest question facing the ABC was not whether a journalist made a mistake or even a question of bias – because some 80% of Australians thought it was not biased. The bigger question was: “How can Australia have a public broadcasting system that is fit for purpose, as efficient as possible, and just as valuable to our children as it has been to us?”
He derided the case put by commercial interests and some partisans who said public money should not be used for a media service that duplicated commercial ones. This argument was “simplistic, facile and entirely self-serving,” he said.
A key challenge facing Australians was how to maintain diversity of voice in a media landscape that was rapidly consolidating, Milne said.
Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google – the FAANGs – had fundamentally transformed the media landscape around the world.
“Facebook and Google alone capture two-thirds of the digital ad market in Australia. Amazon has become a trillion-dollar company. And Netflix’s annual spend on content is now three times that of all Australia’s commercial, public and pay television businesses combined.
“By contrast, audiences and revenues for incumbent commercial media organisations are tumbling, and ownership is consolidating, especially Down Under.
“Our three pay television operators have become one, owned by the Australian arm of News Corporation in New York. Channel Ten is now in US hands too. And since 2003, the number of owners of Australian newspapers has halved.
“In television and radio, some 70 per cent of the market is now owned by just four organisations. And in print, 90 per cent is owned by three organisations. These figures will worsen if speculation is correct and Fairfax merges with another incumbent, or regional television businesses merge with their capital-city partners.”
Milne said federal governments had dealt with the onslaught of the FAANGs by enabling further consolidation in Australian media, diluting ownership restrictions and boosting commercial incumbents with licence-fee cuts.
“Whatever your view on the business or political logic of this, the effect has been to hand control over many Australian media voices to businesses in the US – while substantially diluting the diversity of voices that remain.
“Those who would cripple or even abolish the ABC would clearly exacerbate that consolidation, leading to further homogeneity of voices.
“That may mean that pretty soon our kids only see American stories and perspectives to mould their morals, culture and behaviour as adults. And
those same kids would need to give up any aspiration to work in a healthy domestic production sector,” Milne said.
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.