It is only in recent years that is has been suggested that the operation of a newspaper should be beyond the control and influence of those who actually own it.
The curious system of a charter of independence, written by journalists, was allegedly introduced at Fairfax after the departure of the family in 1987. This followed young Warwick Fairfax’s ill-advised attempts to take over the company.
But the charter doesn’t mean the board has no role. The charter is only a promise to maintain standards and an affirmation that the editor is independent. This is balanced by the fact that the editor is not tenured. He or she can be dismissed at any time. That’s the key. That is why judges were given tenure during England’s Glorious Revolution. It was to make them independent of the King.
Instead of Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Stephen Conroy insisting on their interpretation of the Fairfax Charter, why don’t they practice what they preach? Why don’t they restore tenure to the top public servants so they can start getting independent advice as governments once did?
For two decades now, successive Fairfax boards have hidden behind the charter. To them it has not been a charter of independence – it has been an abdication of responsibility. The board has abandoned the running of newspapers to the journalists while they have concentrated on “growing” the company business.
Instead, the business declined, exacerbated by the drying up of those famous rivers of gold, classified advertising. Roger Corbett’s Canute like defiance of the advertising drought, as recounted by Eric Beecher, would be funny if it were not so tragic. That the classified drought was coming was obvious. But successive boards and management were unable to rise to the challenge in the way any capable media mogul would have.
Fairfax has been run too long by a board full of accountants and management men most of whom – with the exception of the passing appearance of John Fairfax – knew absolutely nothing about the running of newspapers. Worse, they seem to have had little interest in doing so. Contrast that with the typical media mogul who is totally obsessed with and entranced by the media. The fact is, to make any media outlet a success, you have to know the media intimately.
Faced with the abdication of responsibility by the Fairfax board, the journalists went their own way. A succession of charter based editors accepted that they were at most first among equals in these cosy, politically correct collectives. They result was those once great journals of record, the Age and the Herald, were converted into fey mouthpieces of the bicycling vegan inner-city elites whose lives are far removed from the mainstream.
The journalistic collectives took the papers in a direction which first irritated and then outraged their traditional readerships. For years I have been told by countless numbers of people that they have given up their subscriptions to the Fairfax papers. Invariably, they mention the letters page which they see as a forum for the inner-city left. In both papers conservative, suburban, Australians are the subject of condescension and ridicule.
What has happened at Fairfax is not the dawning of some new paradise. It is an aberration and it is doomed to failure. This is not about the adoption of some Charter of Independence, but an abdication of management in favour of a journalistic collective.
The only equivalent experience among great papers was at the Paris based newspaper, Le Monde. There journalists were empowered with shareholdings and the right to vote in the management. It ended in tears, with white knights having to come in to save the paper from bankruptcy.
In fact most great newspapers have enjoyed powerful proprietors. Indeed they were probably great because of that formula for success – powerful proprietors who were fascinated by the business and who were determined to get good journalists and put them under strong and capable editors.
As with so many other human institutions, there is need for a strong hierarchy, notwithstanding all the claptrap about horizontal organisations. The only problem is when the hierarchy is not up to the job. The media mogul is today an endangered species in Australia. Now there’s no identifiable single dominant proprietor at Fairfax, most commercial TV and, of course, the ABC and SBS.
And the point is there is nothing wrong at all with a proprietor intervening. The question surely is what the purpose of the intervention is. On one occasion, Lord Wakeham, then Chairman of the British Press Complaints Commission, asked Rupert Murdoch to intervene to persuade a recalcitrant News Limited editor to observe its rulings. Murdoch did. And what was wrong with that? But under a charter it is said he shouldn’t.
Today the Fairfax board is in a state of panic. Do they seriously think they will sell significantly more tabloid Heralds than the broadsheet version? The issue is not size. It’s quality.
They should be trying to get back the vast number of subscribers turned off by the left bias and condescension of the past, and a young market keen for an outlet which is just not a mouthpiece for the inner city elites. Their first aim should be turn their two mastheads back into the journals of record they once were.
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