I listened in to the Fairfax Board Meeting via webcast on Tuesday for the purposes of filing for the Crikey email. The last couple of days have been very busy for me. I have been meeting a major deadline for a Griffith Review article (to be published in February) as well as doing some work for the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. So apologies for the late nature of these reflections, but while I have been dashing around some thoughts have drifted to the surface.
In the latter stages of the questions section of the meeting, many ordinary shareholders were asking about issues of editorial judgement and quality, particularly at the Sydney Morning Herald, and getting quite specific about particular issues and stories. The Board clearly struggled to deal withthis until, quite suddenly, Corbett seemed to remember editorial independence – that is, the notion that editors make these decisions and the board does not interfere. After that, it was easy to dodge the questions.
During this discussion, Corbett attempted to defend the role of the media. He referred to how essential it was to democracy to have a “cynical and independent” media.
Now, his use of the word cynical struck me at the time as rather unfortunate at the time.
Thinking about it since, I think he must have made a mistake.
Surely what Corbett meant was a sceptical media.
Personally, I regard scepticism as vital for journalists. But cynicism is moral failure.
The other interesting slip was in CEO Brian McCarthy’s report to the meeting, in which he was talking about the number of unique browsers of the company’s sites. He said, instead “internet bruisers” and quickly corrected himself. A slip anyone could make, of course, but one wonders if it was Freudian, given what the web is doing to revenue.
There was little at the meeting about how Fairfax plans to prepare for the National Broadband Network, other than an assertion that they are doing it. I guess that is fair enough. They don’t want to give their plans away to their competitors. Nevertheless, it seemed a bit limp to say, as McCarthy did, that they planned to have a website for all their 400 plus mastheads. If they haven’t already done that, then it is staggering. Compare and contrast with what the ABC’s Mark Scott (a former Fairfax executive) has been doing and saying. Of course, Scott has the luxury of not having to worry so much about commercial competition. Nevertheless, the vision-gap is rather visible.
But surely the most gobsmacking thing is that the Fairfax Board admitted that it allowed a breach of the law for two years while David Evans was a Director of both Fairfax and Village Roadshow. How can it be that nobody noticed?
The Broadcasting Services Act, which prohibits people from being a director of two companies that control radio stations in the same market, is hardly a secret. Does Fairfax’s (and Village Roadshow’s) failure to realise they had a problem signal contempt for the law, or merely profound ignorance? Either way it does not inspire confidence.
And what on earth was the industry regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, doing all this time?
Finally, Gerard Noonan says that Corbett promised all three of the candidates for the Board will be considered for appointment during the “renewal process” now underway.
I understand the Board is looking for at least one person with solid new media experience, plus at least one person with a track record in journalism and media. My money would be on Steve Harris being picked up. He has run a quiet campaign, eschewing public criticisms of the Board. This will mean there are fewer bridges to be built and faces to be lost than there would be if Noonan or Mayne were chosen.
Declaration: Both Steve Harris and Gerard Noonan are on the Board of the recently established Foundation for Public Interest Journalism, of which I am the Chair.