Last Tuesday was the official opening of the new Age building in Melbourne’s Docklands. Can you imagine what a big occasion this would have been for the city if it had taken place a decade ago? Most of us old farts can remember when anything concerning The Age mattered in Melbourne. The opening of its new home would have been a landmark occasion not only for the newspaper but for the city, with all the movers and shakers and would be movers and shakers jockeying to be seen and heard.
Last Tuesday, though, was a rather sad comparison. It was euphemistically called a “soft launch”. What is a “soft launch” someone asked? The answer came back. It is the launch you have when the Board is dysfunctional and the Chairman doing the honours has been forced out. My information is that the wing ding had a decidedly low rent air, apparently put together in a hurry so that Ron Walker could do the honours.
There were only about 80 people present, with the great majority being Age executives and managers. The remainder were low yield retail advertisers. There were a few eminent figures from The Age‘s past, including former managing director Greg Taylor and former senior executive John Tidy, as well as Ranald MacDonald. Neil Mitchell was there, but there were no other heavy hitters from business, sport or the arts.
Yet, inexplicably, there was Victorian MP Theo Theophanous, who one would have thought would be less than friendly to The Age, given its recent publicising of spurious rape allegations against him. There, too, was Tim Holding and former Premier Jeff Kennett. But apart from Ron Walker putting the heat on the Premier to speak, the event was decidedly “low rent” with mineral water and small Christmas cakes to eat. One editor wondered whether this was some kind of cruel joke. Perhaps, in these times of cost cutting, the event WAS The Age Christmas Party !
The Premier, John Brumby, gave a speech but there were titters when he had a slip of the tongue and called Don Churchill, who is Fairfax’s head honcho in Victoria, “Don Fairfax”. He instantly corrected himself, of course, but it is hard to imagine that such a mistake would have been made by the Premier of the state in the days of Ranald MacDonald or Greg Taylor.
Departing Chairman Ron Walker’s speech was, according to one source, self serving. He described his period as having been one in which The Age‘s Melbourne presence had been rebuilt “brick by brick”.There is some truth to this. Control over The Age did shift back to Melbourne during Walker’s term, but to claim that it has been rebuilt is overstating the case and then some, as the very occasion on which Walker made the claim amply demonstrated.
It’s not all gloom. The new building will be a big improvement for Age staffers on the increasingly squalid working conditions in the old Spencer Street home. Most staff will transfer to the new building over the next couple of months, with editorial the last to move.
Meanwhile as the Fairfax AGM approaches, the organisatinon that used to pride itself on holding the powerful to account and on defending the best values in Melbourne’s public life now has a board composed of men over 60. Instead of opening itself to the possibility of shareholder driven renewal, it has structured things so that credible nominees for the Board cannot be elected.
As a result, Fairfax’s reputation in Melbourne and Australia is lower now than it was even eight weeks ago.It’s enough to make those of us who were trained in the old brown brick building on the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale Street weep with frustration.
*Declaration. I am the Chair of the recently established Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. Steve Harris and Gerard Noonan, both nominees for the Fairfax Board, are on the Board of the Foundation.