28 July 2013

Go on

Every night in my dreams
I see you, I feel you
That is how I know you go on

Far across the distance
And spaces between us
You have come to show you go on ...

- Celine Dion My heart will go on
Fairfax journalists apparently loved this, which is a shame. It is another exercise in self-delusion that has seen the company diminish both the quantity and quality of its actual journalism and disappear up itself, a process that those who really love both the company and the ideals they project upon it would condemn in the strongest terms, and should work to reverse if they can.
The greatest compliment a fiercely independent media organisation can receive is condemnation from those who fear free speech and unfailing scrutiny of the rich and powerful.
It's almost a pity that the appearance of James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch in, and at the launch of, Killing Fairfax by Pamela Williams wasn't about that. Packer and Murdoch weren't fearful of Fairfax. They may have been at earlier points in their careers, but it is clear that they had come to be contemptuous of it. It has been a long time since either man underwent any serious scrutiny in Fairfax beyond petty spats surrounding their respective homes in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

Fairfax lacked the ability and the wit to monitor Packer's transformation into a casino mogul using the media wealth he inherited from his father. One minute he was blowing the family dough on OneTel and Scientology, the next he became a global presence in the casino industry. Having read Fairfax closely over many years it is unclear how this transformation took place. From this, one need not necessarily conclude that Packer is a genius or even that he has learned some lessons along the way; this isn't about him, it's about Fairfax.

A fiercely independent media organisation: wouldn't that be a great idea.

Fairfax has failed at its basic task of explaining big, complex issues like the global casino industry and where Packer fits into it. Being able to explain big, complex issues is why people had loyally bought newspapers, and they have turned away from newspapers that fail consistently in that task. Note the name newspapers, not adpapers: the news was always the appeal. To imagine The Sydney Morning Herald as The Trading Post with Column 8 and David Astle's crosswords tacked onto it is to misremember its past and to misunderstand what a newspaper is.

Classified ads were undoubtedly important - but the bins outside newsagencies on Saturday mornings always contained more of the classified-supported sections than those focusing on news and sport. People who bought newspapers daily and weekly did and do so for the sake of news. Nobody buys cars or moves houses or changes jobs on a daily basis (and those who do rarely regard the Herald as the indispensible source of information on such matters). People do those things occasionally, but not every day. Regular readers aren't there for the ads. The news is to ads what the Trojan horse was to the armies of the Greeks, a means of getting inside the ramparts. How the ad sales boys could bluff supposedly fearless and opinionated journos in the running of media companies is a matter for the historians now.
... we do not accept [Packer's and Murdoch's] false premises that the company which has funded the Herald's quality journalism for so long is dying, nor that this pair of moguls' sons can claim credit for any problems Fairfax has faced.
Most of Fairfax's wounds were self-inflicted: Fred Hilmer, the business school chief, swatting away opportunities that might have sustained his company; John B. Fairfax, a son-of-a-mogul if ever there was one and no better than his half-brother Warwick as custodian of his inheritance; but we know all that. It's a pity that this editorial can't bring itself to face the curate's egg of its recent past, and why Packer and Murdoch have such solid grounds to regard it as a mish-mash.
Rather, we see the premature exaltation of Packer and Murdoch as proof certain that the Herald and its stablemates are doing just as they always have. And that is fulfilling a crucial democratic duty, without fear or favour, without regard to commercial self-interest.
Whoa, fancy; putting the qualifier after that which has been qualified ("proof certain"). What a clumsy way to break up a run-on sentence that is, starting a sentence with a conjoining word.

Packer and Murdoch ran companies that were commercial competitors of Fairfax, and Fairfax ran stories that needled those competitors to some extent. This is hardly as bold as the editorialist would hope.
With respect, what an affront it surely is to all Australians for Packer and Murdoch to rejoice over threats to quality journalism.
With respect, what an affront to have one's commercial interest confused with that of the nation. Fairfax noted this when James Packer hid his commercial interest in the proposed Barangaroo casino behind those of Sydney and Australia more broadly. How distasteful it is to have a sniffy put-down couched with the phrase "with respect".
And it will survive, funded by a new, sustainable business model to replace what were once, indeed, rivers of gold.
Click those ruby-red slippers together and believe, believe, believe. And no, don't tell me such cynicism is unwarranted. More than two decades of false starts have made those who follow the commercial self-interest of Fairfax more closely than I sceptical to say the least that this time - for sure! - that when it comes to 21st century media this, finally, is the mounting wave that will roll them shoreward soon.
Technological advances in the past two decades have forced Fairfax and other newspaper companies to change as those lucrative classified advertising revenues slowed sharply and shifted to online outfits.

Packer and Murdoch rode by chance with some of them, gambling that they could cash in and wreak delicious revenge against Fairfax for daring to expose their families' power and behaviour to unwanted scrutiny.
Packer runs the ruler over investments more carefully than he did, and you have to admit that Seek was a beauty. Lachlan Murdoch was more clever than lucky with his online RealEstate investment. Fairfax could've been sustained by both those 'outfits'. They close to leave them to others, who can hardly be blamed for not only being pleased with their investment but with denying it to hapless and badly led Fairfax.
The people who killed Fairfax were the people who were running it. That's where the blame really belongs.

- Ita Buttrose, who worked for both James Packer's and Lachlan Murdoch's fathers.
Quite so. But back to the editorialist:
"You'd have to say they've got thin skins," was the conclusion of Killing Fairfax author Pam Williams - tellingly, a Fairfax employee.
It's telling that the editorialist thinks this is telling. She has something snide to say about people who compete with her employer. Do you think she would've got interviews with those men by revealing that sort of attitude?
With glasses raised in toast this week, Packer said: "Fairfax didn't see any of this coming. They thought it was all beneath them. They thought we were idiots. You know, I think we killed Fairfax." Murdoch responded: "I think so".

For the sake of those who value democracy and a proudly Australian voice, let's hope not.
A couple of paragraphs ago the editorialist had unshakeable faith that Fairfax was as healthy as Australian democracy itself and has a robust future. Packer and Murdoch talk about having killed Fairfax - in the past tense - and the editorialist can only whimper, "I hope not". Don't you know whether or not your own employer is alive or dead? If not, do you know anything at all, and can you be trusted with the basic functions of a newspaper?
With respect, Packer left the media because the power his family sought through it was evaporating and money mattered too much.
With respect, the phrase "with respect" is out of place here. Packer could have turned Channel 9 into Australia's HBO, but at every step Fairfax would have painted him as a pale imitation of his father (just as John B. Fairfax and Warwick Fairfax Jr were). Packer has built a company with global reach in a tough industry over the past decade, something no other Australian organisation has.

By contrast, Murdoch's investments in DMG Australia and Channel 10 has been as imperfect as Fairfax admits its own record to have been.
With respect, the Murdoch empire has relied on global film revenue to fund its news media, will rely on TV revenue in future and has used phone-hacking to seek a commercial advantage.
With respect, you speak too soon on phone-hacking. With respect, Murdoch's own business model in unsustainable, as Fairfax has often pointed out, so if vast film-industry and TV profits can't sustain news media, then what hope does Fairfax's model stand?
By contrast Fairfax is developing a business model that can ensure the Herald serves the Australian public with independent journalism for another 182 years.
"... that can ensure ..." ... that might ensure ... that hopefully ensures ... oh timid certainty, thy name is Fairfax.

Of what is Fairfax journalism "independent"? It is not independent of journo-groupthink, where media organisations report the same things in the same manner while resisting the urge to explore different issues from different perspectives. Like other media outlets, The Australian loves the idea of EXCLUSIVEs but I love how it tires of them and wonders why Fairfax and the ABC seem so happy to let them have them - a day or say later, Fairfax will meekly run the story.

Fairfax employees in the parliamentary press gallery followed and upheld the narratives set by News Ltd, and I have set out the symbiotic relationship between Peter Hartcher and Kevin Rudd here. Add to that the proportion of Fairfax stories that are simply rewrites of press releases written by press secretaries and other publicists, and the statement that Fairfax journalism is independent journalism is exposed for the bullshit that it is.
That Williams can write a book which exposes her employer to cheap shots from rivals says a lot about editorial independence.
It sure does: fishing for backhanded compliments, using Pam Williams as bait.
Contrast this to the Murdoch empire's rejection of internal dissent and insistence on groupthink ...
That explains why it brought Stutchbury back from News Ltd to run a peace-love-and-mung-beans management style at The Australian Financial Review.
... to Kerry Packer's intolerance of criticism and his son's "hatred, hatred, hatred, hatred" outburst in describing his motivations against Fairfax.
Kerry Packer was about as tolerant of criticism as Fred Hilmer, Brian McCarthy, or Greg Hywood. I'd hate Fairfax too if it treated me in the way that Fairfax treated James Packer.
Contrast it to the Herald's ability to give credit where it is due and play every issue on its merits.
I remember how the Herald treated Prime Minister Gillard, and then pivoted to insist that history would treat her government more kindly than its own groupthink-fucked employees did - including the editorialist, it must be said. I remember how the Herald gained a reputation for beautiful writing on cricket by publishing Peter Roebuck, and then ran a shower of squalid pieces on him soon after his death, making me wonder what sort of person would even want to work at a place like that. I could go on about this fantasy of "play every issue on its merits"; nothing wrong with building castles in the air, you just can't live in them or pretend that you do.
To the chagrin of Packer and Murdoch, the Herald's team of fearless journalists remains a thorn in the side ...
A thorn in the side of whom? Since this blog was founded in 2006 it has scrutinised the Leader of the Federal Opposition, for example, far more closely than almost all Fairfax journalists put together and cubed.
... a check and balance on the extremes of power ...
In theory, this is what journalists do, and to be fair there are some historical examples where this has happened.
... a challenge to the cosy status quo ...
Fairfax are the cosy status quo in the Australian media, pale imitations of News Ltd. The only difference is that the status quo in Australia's news media isn't cosy, it's frightened.
Kate McClymont, Adele Ferguson, Linton Besser, Peter Hartcher and so many more - let no businessman or politician say their work and that of countless other Fairfax journalists has not made this country a better and more civilised place.
I am a businessman, I suppose, but it's not in that capacity that I blog here - and God knows I am no politician - so let me state freely: the work of contemporary Fairfax employees has done all too little to make this or any other country better or more civilised. Kate McClymont runs colour pieces on notable but relatively economically and politically powerless people like Michael McGurk or Craig Thomson. Hartcher is Kevin Rudd's press secretary on the Fairfax payroll.

The other two named write enjoyable and informative pieces to be sure, but there are thousands of Australians working as teachers, nurses, hairdressers, bus drivers, arc welders, bar staff, bookkeepers, database administrators, etc who do every bit as much to make this country a better and more civilised place. This is where Fairfax, and journalists generally, need to get over themselves and reach out to the audience they supposedly serve, but who seem so reluctant to appreciate the service they are supposedly being rendered on the same basis as those who render it.
The Herald believes Australians will always value quality journalism and keep supporting a business that has a long record of delivering it. While you can now access the Herald's journalism in many ways, the core promise has not changed.
The promise may not have changed but the delivery has. Fairfax's record is an indictment of its anaemic present.
And you still have a choice about what sort of country Australia should be.
I've always had that choice, and so have you. It isn't Fairfax's place to grant or deny it.
It can be one where the commercial interests of Packer and Murdoch prevail, self-satisfied and free of scrutiny.
And it will be if the editor of The Australian Financial Review gets his way, given his switch to a kinder, gentler, PR-friendly approach to business and his Murdoch-style demonisation and misrepresentation of those whose interests are different to those of people like Murdoch and Packer.
The other is one where, as the first Herald editorial said in 1831, editorial management of newspapers is conducted upon principles of candour, honesty and honour. Where respect and deference are paid to all classes.
Oh, please.
Freedom of thinking. No wish to mislead.
Fairfax reporting of the Gillard government was misleading and not at all free, of press gallery groupthink and a desire to deliver Fairfax's audience to different political interests rather than serve them. This is yet another example where the lofty rhetoric of this editorialist crashes to earth in a cloud of bulldust.
No interests to gratify.
Again, look no further than Peter Hartcher's coverage of Kevin Rudd to belie this. He only hopped into Abbott when Rudd was in office, and when Gillard was PM he more than gratified Coalition delusions of adequacy. There are others that might serve to return Fairfax to the humility this piece has lost.
Dissent with respect, to establish a principle.
Wouldn't that be lovely.
By these sentiments we shall be guided, and, whether friends or foes, by these we shall judge others; we have a right, therefore, to expect that by these we shall be judged.
This assumes that Fairfax is capable of living up to the aspirations of this editorialist, which it isn't. It's already proven that. This similarly vacuous editorial of The Age on 22 June this year is both the standard by which Fairfax lives, and dies. Who thinks The Age has become more (or less) policy-focused since Labor's federal caucus apparently acceded to its demands? The same people, well-meaning perhaps but counterproductive definitely, who cheered the Herald's blustery editorial yesterday.

I want to be livid that Fairfax is seeking to treat "quality journalism" or "Australian democracy" as properties of its the commercial self-interest of Fairfax, but I just can't do it; when you see how badly the company has been at pursuing its commercial interests, through acts of commission and omission over many years, it's just wryly amusing.

It's too late and too feeble to castigate The Age's editorialist for hypocrisy and backsliding: you may as well rail at the hopeless addict who has pledged yet again to give away the poison that is killing them, and yet again you find them intoxicated again and you wonder why you bother, only to realise it isn't about you. It isn't even about these windbag editorialists that Fairfax employs to small-h herald their decline. These editorialists should just pull their heads in for their own sakes, not just for the commercial self-interest of their employer pro tem.

Fairfax has consciously and consistently chosen to play a smaller and smaller role in a widening news media environment full of participants hungry for news that is both interesting and trustworthy. That's their choice; but regardless of the outlet Fairfax chooses to excrete this stuff, it should spare us this crap that their past is their future and that Australian democracy is its gift to us. These delusions must die before Fairfax can play any sort of valuable role in this country's future. To sustain those delusions is to kill Fairfax by its own hand.


  1. Not to mention the fact that The Guardian Australia is eating away at Fairfax's 'loyal' readership from the other end of the political spectrum to the Murdoch media.

    I can't see Fairfax ultimately surviving that unless they become harder-nosed, instead of brown-nosed.

  2. Bushfire Bill29/7/13 1:03 pm

    Any newspaper that alienates half - yes HALF - its readership by publishing the groupthink-derived tripe that Peter Hartcher, Shaun Carney, Phil Coorey, Annabel Crabbe, Paul Sheehan, Kate McClymont, Michelle Grattan and a host of other political writers - wrote, and continue in some cases to write is not serious about commercial success.

    Why would you tell half your customers that their political choice wasn't simply off the ball just a tad, on balance, y'know, but hopelessly, completely, utterly, wrong and incapable of ever being right on any issue... and then expect them to fork out a couple of dollars a day to endure that kind of nagging?

    Why would you take seriously a web site that publishes a report as recently as yesterday, of an interview by Andrew Bolt of the PM, that front paged the startling information that Rudd admits the boats won't stop immediately, and might continue until after the election?

    Why would you say that this policy is therefore, quote, "in tatters", unquote, just a week or so after it had been announced?

    That isn't fearless. That's S-T-U-P-I-D, with a capital "S".

    Does it make the bleedin' obvious even more obvious - that big policy changes take time to arrange and implement - because it's on the front page of The Age and The SMH? And because (the un-named) Andrew Bolt drew out this astonishing admission from Rudd? Yes, un-named... they didn't even have the guts to say who conducted the interview. Fairfax watched the telly, just like a couple of hundred thousand other people did. Why is this cutting edge journalism? And why wasn't it a Fairfax journo who scored the interview instead of Bolt?

    Fairfax wants us to *pay* for this garbage?

    Who would want to voluntarily read Hartcher's man-love pieces on Rudd, except to see if it was possible they could get even worse than they have been for the past three years?

    Or Crabbe's incomprehensible schoolgirl gigglings?

    I'm not saying News is any better. In fact they're a lot worse, but at least they're relatively honest about being creeps. Murdoch phones the editor, publishes tweets, News follows. No mystery there. The Old Man's admitted he dictates editorial policy. So be it.

    But, with respect, why an organization like Fairfax, one that actually has to operate like a proper company - you know the drill... balance sheets, profit and loss columns, shareholder value, dividends... all that bizoid stuff - why that organization would go out of its way to offend readers who disagree with the talentless prima donnas who couldn't afford to take the package at this stage in their lives, is beyond me.

    When the election's over what do they think will happen? Are the pissed-off punters going to come back in their hundreds of thousands to read breathless reports on the latest episode of The Voice, or forgive all that has gone before and start believing the scribes who've been bullshitting them for the past seven years? With politics dead, why would even customers from the winning side want to read about it?

    Perhaps we might want to find out about finance, business and the economy, post-the-election? But why read a newspaper that represents anachronistic business model, mass sackings, dreadful management, massive loss of customer base, and a share price worth about as much as a postage stamp be the source of that information? Can a company that can't run itself instruct others how to run their own companies, and governments how to run an economy? Would the punters want to know what that type of organization thinks?

    Of course they wouldn't, and no editorial claiming integrity, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, will ever convince me otherwise.

    Fairfax, over-indulging their "brand names" mentioned above, got their result, at last - Gillard was hounded out of office - but I believe they will find the price of their soaring narcissm has been their own oblivion.

    1. What you say in your commentary is so like I would like to express my views of the media of Australia with the likes of Grattan, and as was said earlier the giggling and stupid Anabelle Crabb earning a crust from writing bullshit and expecting people to follow stupid giggles when will ever get a serious perspective of the political landscape.

  3. A superb demolition of an institution already in its death throes.

    Fairfax betrayed their discerning followers in the two most populous states very blatantly through the Gillard Prime Ministership, but as you say, it is the climax to a very long decline.

    It started with Warwick Fairfax Jnr's Colonel Cargill attempt at privatisation over twenty years ago. The Tourang takeover and the temporary leadership of Conrad Black was the first serious attempt to change the direction of the two main flagships, but like Howard's first attempts to nobble the ABC, the older remnants of Fairfax's journalism were able to resist.

    It seemed less able to cope with Hilmer's reign, just as the ABC has been helpless against the combined assaults by Newman and Scott. Banality has done the job that control or censorship could not. The various successors at Fairfax have proved unable to staunch the bleeding. As you say, the appointment of Stuchbury to the AFR was almost like a gesture of surrender.

    We have paid dearly for that, with Murdoch able to set the agenda for the past three years and these other two once-credible alternatives meekly falling into line.

    As a consequence, most Australians have missed the success of the 43rd parliament and this government. We are much the poorer for it.

    The integrity and commitment shown by Windsor, Oakeshott and Gillard has passed almost unnoticed. In fact, because of this Murdoch agenda and the others falling into line, the majority of the public hate the former PM, without rationally knowing why.

    If they can't save themselves, they deserve to cromble.

  4. Lachlan Ridge30/7/13 1:40 am

    Fairfax has failed at its basic task of explaining big, complex issues like the global casino industry and where Packer fits into it : Spot on!

    The real story about Packer and the Barangaroo Casino was twofold. One, Packer's links to the Ho family in Macao, who were kicked out of Joizy by the Gambling Commission there (the one that Springsteen famously sang about as “hanging on by the skin of its teeth”). Two, the link between Chinese high rollers – Packer's openly admitted target market - and large scale money laundering. You need permission to take more than about US$1500 out of the PRC, and they don't generally hand that approval out for a weekend in the trough at Macao (or Crown Melbourne, Star City or, maybe, Barangaroo), so these “whale” gamblers that Packer covets use money laundering operations to get their gambling cash. The US State Dept., courtesy of WikiLeaks, is all over this racket, and US Federal regulators have flagged Nevada based operators that they are onto them. This is the stuff that would make Darling Harbour the setting for the next series of The Wire. Google any of this stuff, seriously, you couldn't make it up!

    Fairfax were given this ball-tearer of a story and dopey Sean Nichols picked his nose about the Australian money laundering regulator (are you starting to yawn yet?). Missed the point by about a continent or two. Dumber than a box of hammers. Meanwhile Barry O'Farrell opens the door to a man whose business model is built on the effectiveness of Triads! Why not get Lucky Gattellari out of the Big House and give him a job at Treasury? Same moral position.

    Anyway, Fairfax! If they were a Greyhound they'd be euthanased, but that’s another story they didn't get!

  5. If Fairfax was a fridge you wouldn't store food in it. "Celebrity Journalists" who fantasize they are Mark Twain poling across Lake Burley Griffin deserve the traditional hot tarring and feathering documented by that man. I no longer bother to send factual corrections to inept journalists. Apparently "facts" are "your opinion". Slightly off topic, I corrected Malcolm Farr on a substantial matter, and he pulled the piece, (on line) with no explanation. Samantha Maiden blamed a similar error on her source... not her fault, she's not required to check her information.... Seriously, the email exchanges I have had with these so called journalists, where the last line of justification is to attack me for raising the question demonstrates their disconnect from the purpose of their work. The gleaming pyramids were tiled and seamless, but, like them, the architects of the future political landscape will rely on an army of slaves who will mix dung rubble and clay to backfill the facade. Hod carriers like Hartcher and Maiden rather fancy themselves in their loincloths, but the load will become ever heavier.
    dr susan calvin

    1. May I just sincerely thank you for using the expression 'Raising the question', instead of the egregious misuse of the expression 'Begging the question'.
      Thank you.

  6. Another great article. Thank you Andrew. Losing faith in the SMH and ABC after decades of loyalty is hard to swallow. It's like a family who should have been proud of their children but shat on them instead. You and your followers give me some hope. I hope I live to see the day when you might be editor of Australia's most successful news line.

  7. I stopped reading any Fairfax stuff (except the occasional cartoon linked by people willing to scour the sewers for something of value) after that June 22 editorial. The arrogance of the unnamed editorialist, telling Gillard that she couldn't talk policy and be listened to without at the same time mentioning that she /was/ talking policy, all the time, and that it simply wasn't being reported.

    I hope they rot in hell. And at least there's a good chance of that happening, considering how successful they've been of late.


  8. ...and the best joke:

    Q. How do you make a small fortune?
    A. Give Warwick Fairfax Jnr, and Fred Hilmer a large fortune.

  9. VoterBentleigh30/7/13 7:47 pm

    There is an excellent article online by Mark Baker, Editor-in Charge, “The Age”, entitled “Locked away without hope” (July 11, 2013) about the plight of Sri Lankan asylum seekers. I doubt that there would be anything like this in the Murdoch online media - mostly just screen to screen Coalition propaganda.

    Meanwhile the ABC relies on the BBC's Charles Haviland for a report about the fate of Sri Lankans returned there. Still, they did include it as part of their news.

    I do agree about the ever burgeoning advertising, travel, sports, motoring and real estate sections, which were a disincentive to buy “The Saturday Age”.

  10. Its a sign of the times and the sad state of our [sic] media that I turn to here in the hope and wish that Andrew has a new article up to inform me of the things that the media ought to be informing me about.

    I'm hoping he will do a post on the Nauru fiasco with Toll and Morrison holding hands as they erect tents.

    There are so many questions that could and should be asked about this affair but,again sadly, only Fairfax in a fit of pique ["Why weren't we invited?"] has scratched the surface of the issue.
    ABC TV News completely squibbed the affair, no mention of the Toll/News Cops role at all in their 7PM bulletin in my state and apparently the same silence in other states.
    I despair.


  11. "Kate McClymont runs colour pieces on notable but relatively economically and politically powerless people like Michael McGurk or Craig Thomson."

    Really? Really? Her pursuit of Eddie Obeid, quite possibly at one stage the most powerful person in the state, boils down to this for you?

    1. Obeid sued Fairfax in 2003 and their pursuit of him pretty much stopped. It was a sharemarket-watching blogger who noticed that the market cap of Cascade Coal went from $1m to $55m for no apparent reason who notified the ASX, who notified the ICAC, and from there McClymont was starting from the same basis as any other journo who covered that event. Note in today's SMH the artful way that they imply McClymont was onto Obeid throughout, without saying so directly.

    2. That's simply wrong. She continued to pursue him throughout the decade, leading to an extraordinary episode in parly in 07 in which he trenchantly abused her.

  12. So sorry to sully this blog with the following:

    Mr Bolt with Mr Rudd on The Bolt Report.

    That's how far we have come in the commercial media...

    Why does the conservative voter put up with people like him??