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March 7, 2021

Ugly billionaires dance on the grave of independent journalism

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James Packer (R) and Lachlan Murdoch (L) pose with author Pamela Williams (C) at the launch of her book Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch and the Ultimate Revenge in Sydney on Tuesday (July 23). AFP Photo / Greg Wood


Stephen Mayne, Crikey

The Australian Financial Review’s editor-at-large, Pam Williams, is to be commended for producing Killing Fairfax. Not since The Latham Diaries came out in 2005 has a book delivered so many scoops, insights and revelations into how power is wielded in Australia. Never before have so many powerful Australian media players opened up their lives for one publishing venture.

Amid a treasure trove of gems, my favourite was Ron Walker’s letter to James Packer complaining about the billionaire getting him in a head-lock as he was about to greet the Queen at the opening ceremony of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006. Naughty Ron had failed to bow at the feet of his old Packer mates by not committing Fairfax shareholders to pay an excessive $520 million for PBL’s New Zealand magazines.

Killing Fairfax provides a fascinating take on the personalities involved and a largely factual account of the deals and business trends in Australian media over the past 20 years. However, it is also most unfortunate that Williams, a Fairfax veteran, has allowed herself to be used by Australia’s self-serving and thuggish media oligarchs for what they regard as a seminal propaganda victory over a mortal enemy.

James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch will come to regret the vengeful hubris on display in the book and at Tuesday’s launch in Sydney. They brazenly celebrate the financial battles faced by a venerable media institution which dared fearlessly to cover and sometimes criticise the excesses, power and ethics of their families.

While Alan Kohler will also lose journalistic cachet after associating himself with the exercise courtesy of launching the book yesterday, he has written a factual account of Fairfax’s journey for the News Corporation-owned Business Spectator website this morning.

The key lesson for Fairfax shareholders is the need to have genuinely independent directors who are skilled up in the media industry and dedicated to resisting the self-serving requests coming from the Packer and Murdoch camps.

How on Earth did long-time Murdoch family adviser Mark Burrowes get himself on the Fairfax board? He should have been railing against the ridiculous $1.1 billion that Fairfax paid to buy News Corp’s New Zealand print operations in 2003. Similarly, how on Earth did Fairfax end up with three directors – Dean Wills, David Gonski and Fred Hilmer – in common with shopping centre giant Westfield, which is controlled by the Lowy family, who are on very friendly terms with the Packers? Given Gonksi was a long-time adviser to the Packer family and ended up as joint executor of Kerry Packer’s will, he just shouldn’t have been appointed to the Fairfax board in 1993, shortly after it was refloated by Conrad Black.

It was Gonski, Wills and former PBL CEO turned Fairfax chairman Brian Powers who drove the appointment of Fred Hilmer in 1998 and he, more than anyone else, botched the chess playing as Seek, REA Group and CarSales evolved over the next few years.

The so-called Westfield faction also erred by allowing colourful property developer and record-breaking Liberal Party fundraiser Ron Walker onto the Fairfax board in 2002. Two other key supporters of James Packer, Margaret Jackson and Roger Corbett, were appointed on the same day.

The absolute first criterion of any Fairfax director should be that they are completely independent of any association or sympathy with its billionaire competitors, which have long aspired to shackle its journalism and destroy its business. Corbett’s tenure as Fairfax chairman must surely be under serious scrutiny now given the woeful performance of Fairfax under his leadership, not to mention his pathetically small shareholding after a decade on the board.

And what on Earth is current CEO Greg Hywood doing consorting with Packer so obligingly, to the extent that Williams discloses on page 304 of Killing Fairfax that ‘they planned to ski together in Aspen in the new year of 2013’? Can’t wait for a shareholder to ask about that one at the upcoming Fairfax AGM.

If Fairfax Media had a genuinely independent board now, both Hywood and Corbett would be in a world of trouble for their consorting with Packer, especially after yesterday’s performances.

Ever since Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer went into business together in late 2007 to firstly try to privatise Consolidated Media Holdings and later to control Ten Network Holdings, Australia’s two most powerful families have had an unholy ‘keep off the grass’ agreement which includes manipulating media outlets to ensure minimal criticism of both families.

Look no further than the pathetic coverage by The Daily Telegraph and The Australian on the crony capitalism on display around Crown Ltd and the obsequious O’Farrell government.

Any newspaper worth its salt would be embarking on a vigorous debate about gambling, harbour-front development, tendering processes, political cronyism and the like, but instead you just get a cheer squad of News Corp journalists calling the play like a football match with winners and losers, as opposed to exploring the broader public interest questions.

Here’s hoping Williams’s book will inadvertently blow the whistle on the underbelly of Australian media and fire up those who genuinely believe in independent public interest journalism to reject the Fairfax grave-dancing performances by the boy billionaires yesterday.

And that includes Fairfax editors doing what they do best: fearlessly taking on the rich and powerful regardless of what their CEO or directors think.

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