The Age/SMH staff hysteria about a new shareholder when their management has just announced the deepest staff cuts in their history (and foreshadowed the closure of the newspapers) is a bit like a terminal patient worrying who’s moved into the neighbouring hospital bed after the doctor has explained he’ll be amputating the left-side of their body. Those who assume Rinehart is desperate to own/control two loss-making left-wing newspapers have almost certainly got her all wrong. Not even the richest person in Australian history can save The Age/SMH now.
Dear everyone. No picking on how women look. Even Gina Rinehart. Plenty more important things to take her on about.
— Catherine Deveny(@CatherineDeveny) June 19, 2012
A former popular and contentious Age columnist, Catherine Deveny, not normally known for her restraint or subtlety in her criticism of targets, had had a gutful of the vitriolic, vituperative and vicious abuse of Australia’s most currently financially successful woman, Gina Rinehart. Good for her. On Twitter, it’s been especially vile.
There’s been a monstrous, sickening, outrageous hysteria over Rinehart’s acquisition of a potentially controlling stake in once-mighty, now distressed Fairfax Media. Even senior politicians who should know better have joined in.
We believe it’s much fuss about nothing. Rinehart might want to control Fairfax, on the cheap, but no-one in the financial markets believes she wants to control it for the purpose of owning, controlling or manipulating The Age and/or Sydney Morning Herald. That’s just the fantasy of a Fairfax few who – as ever – are delusional about their value. As you’ll see, the smart money currently calculates the value of those mastheads at zero…
There are good parts of the company that could make Fairfax viable if restructured or that are viable if liberated from Fairfax. The TradeMe site in New Zealand is essentially the NZ eBay knock-off. And quite the success it is too. The geniuses of the Fairfax board (who include TradeMe’s geek-founder) have been misguidedly selling that off piece by piece. It’s probably the only thing anything with half a clue would definitely keep.
The radio assets – talk-back radio whose employees include former One Nation MP David Oldfield and boofhead ex-FM radio refugee Paul Murray who boasted on-air recently that he was on Kathy Jackson’s “side” in the HSU scandal (despite worrying primary document evidence about her rorting circulating online and pretensions to be a journalist) – are a good vehicle for advertisers hoping to reach oldies. The regional newspapers, the Canberra Times, the Fin Review, could all potentially press on too. These businesses are mature though and don’t offer much prospect for growth, indeed, some talk of gloom and doom for the newspapers too, even monopoly ones.
But none of those businesses really capture the imagination – or loom as large in the public or media consciousness – as the once-grand, now-old broadsheets, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. As businesses, they are in terminal decline.
The “Metro” newspapers, Age/Herald are the clearly currently non-viable parts of the business, dragging down the rest of the company. Because they were once the most valuable media properties in Australia, some are struggling to get their heads around this new truth: they’re toast.
And while we don’t celebrate job losses for anyone, we won’t be rending garments about the imminent closure of two Australian broadsheets.
The Age/Sydney Morning Herald has been just as partisan, biased, one-eyed and stupid as Fairfax schlock-jock 2UE’s Paul Murray on a bad day, if not more so. The viciousness of Age/Herald’s attacks on anyone connected with the mining industry, gaming (especially pokies), News Corp (unless they renounce Rupert), Sussex Street (the NSW Labor Right ‘machine’), Macquarie Bank, property developers (unless they donate to the Greens), political party donors (unless they donate to the Greens), Labor moderates, anyone competing with the Greens, anyone questioning humanity’s impact on climate change, social conservatives, Liberals (unless they are liberal Liberals or self-hating Liberals like Malcolm Fraser), Catholics (unless they were denouncing the hierarchy) and, lest we forget, Israel/United States is a powerful illustration of what “editorial independence” really means to Fairfax scribes.
At its worst, “editorial independence” at Fairfax has really meant is rank, unaccountable self-indulgence by a group of vile, inner-city bigots whose blood-lust on certain predictable targets has been in keeping with “Lord of the Flies” thrill-kills. And, yes, full disclosure, for a time, I got to be a target too. I got over it, but they never quite got over what ailed them.
Forgiving injustice is a good thing. But we won’t let Fairfax’s past atrocities be forgotten or white-washed by myth-making that they stand for quality and that this quality was facilitated by letting journalists do whatever they wanted in the name of “editorial independence.” It’s just not correct. It’s not to say there aren’t good people at Fairfax. There are plenty. To be honest, we kept discovering them the more we looked, even at The Age. Some of them have provided us with fascinating insights about what went on there. But the atrocities of their worst tainted the efforts of the many good ones. There are so many rancid examples, the front-page damning of a Cabinet Minister as a rapist on the say-so of one psychiatrically-ill friend of the reporter (who didn’t disclose the association) is probably the most horrendous and unjust.
And let’s be clear about how they operated when they got it wrong. They’d very rarely – if ever – settle defamation cases, threatening to make taking them on as difficult, expensive and ugly as possible. Fairfax put the ‘lies’ into ‘bullies’.
Two of Australia’s most serious politicians, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Communications Minister Steve Conroy, seemed to be auditioning for future roles in comedy yesterday when expressing po-faced concern for the Fairfax “charter of editorial independence,” a relic from Fairfax’s profitable, viable, classifieds-monopoly days that basically gave leftist culture-warriors (who hate the political tribes of the Victorian Labor Right’s Conroy and Queensland AWU’s Swan for the most part) a licence-to-kill anyone they didn’t like.
We could go on and on about this but the truth is that the money has run out for these newspapers. The monopoly profits that came from classifieds have gone. And, in economic terms, it was always only classifieds that sustained The Age/Sydney Morning Herald. They completely depended on it, and were even in the 1980s, only profitable on Saturdays and, I think, also Wednesdays.
It’s in that context that a squabble about “editorial independence” for the newsrooms of these newspapers is utterly irrelevant. It’s yesterday’s debate. Yes, it was relevant in 1988 when the ownership of these newspapers was highly sought after. In 2012, who cares.
The truth is that Rinehart has done Fairfax management a massive favour this week by distracting the staff from the announcement of the deepest head-count cuts in the company’s history. 1900 staff. A clear foreshadowing by Greg Hywood, the company’s CEO whom inherited a bad mess he can’t do much about, that the printing of the metropolitan newspapers won’t last for much longer.
The assumption that Ms Rinehart has a deep interest in owning two unprofitable, left-leaning newspapers full of troublesome, noisy, articulate, self-entitled editorial staff is actually quite absurd in the context of what Hywood announced and her widely-known interest in investing in and improving viable media businesses, as a sideline to her probably overvalued iron ore businesses. The debate about her media industry intentions is fuelled by nostalgia for a lost world when you couldn’t sell a house, a car or hire staff without paying Fairfax their cut.
Rinehart’s demonstrated public interest has been in Fairfax’s radio assets, for which she submitted a good offer, for the strongly conservative, oldies-serving, nicely profitable talk-back radio network. Fairfax wouldn’t sell them to her without a big premium. So she’s kept buying the shares. Being interested in financial matters, as someone with a notional net worth of $20+ billion would be, she might well be interested in the Financial Review too. Its politics is different from the Metropolitan newspapers. And maybe the regional newspapers too.
But The Age/SMH? We don’t think so. In fact, beyond Fairfax newsrooms, no-one really thinks she’s interested. Here’s why.
As the Wall Street Journal reported a Deutsche Bank analyst:
“Our unchanged 67 cents a share price target is based on our forecast FY13 sum-of-the-parts valuation which incorporates a nil value for the metro print business,” Mr. Anagnostellis said in a note to clients..
Those having a debate about these Fairfax mastheads as if it’s still 1988 are deluding themselves. Perhaps it’s fair enough for politicians to play around with these things to feed the 24-hour media-cycle and show some token solidarity with the doomed but there are innocent victims whose welfare ought to be the subject of genuine community concern. There are 1900 families whose breadwinners will be looking for work. That’s far more important than “editorial independence” in publications that have ceased having an economic reason for being.
The workers involved in printing and distributing The Age were not warriors in the culture wars. They were just doing their job. And once our political leaders have moved on from the self-indulgence of this week, feeding the fantasies of a few deluded journos who suspend reason to delude themselves into thinking the old ways will last forever, we hope they are doing everything they should be to ensure Fairfax’s multi-million dollar salary-packaged management are doing right by the workers they’re boning.