Fairfax to middling

When Fairfax moved its Sydney papers to a purpose-built office in Pyrmont, the joke was that the building resembled the H-block prison designed to extinguish hope in IRA fighters. That was a decade ago.

The building now belongs to Google. The internet giant leased floor after floor until, in January, it consumed the entire premises. Desk by desk, it was as if the search engine was doing in reality what it was doing online. The lease Fairfax initially signed was supposed to run until 2027. The last journalist will be out the year after next.

As of Thursday, it was not just the building. The papers are gone, too. They will soon belong to Nine. The story of Fairfax under Greg Hywood looks more and more like the story of Maze prison. Journalists have been on the blanket since before he took over. He will be remembered as the warder who watched Bobby Sands die.

Fairfax describes the move as a merger, but in reality it has been bought. Nine’s chief executive will remain chief executive. The name of the business will be Nine. Hywood will take a generous exit package.

It is too soon to say what the broadcaster wants from the metropolitan papers, from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. In the past, it has expressed ambivalence. Already, it is talking about unwanted duplication.

The local papers will possibly be sold. More redundancies can be expected. The real interest is in the streaming service Stan and the real estate website Domain. Fairfax’s storied journalism, the more than 170 years of faith stored in its mastheads, is mostly an inconvenience.

This has been inevitable since, with the help of One Nation, the government dissolved the country’s media ownership laws. The communications minister, who used to work for Peter Costello, will now watch as his old boss becomes chair of a company that further concentrates our already concentrated media.

Paul Keating calls the deal “an exceptionally bad development”. He said Nine will inevitably run the editorial policy of the papers it has bought, and that it has shown no ethical or moral capacity to do so.

“No one has lanced the carbuncle at the centre of Nine’s approach to news management. And, as sure as night follows day, that pus will inevitably leak into Fairfax,” he said. “For the country, this is a great pity.”

Journalism depends on diversity. It is too expensive a craft for a single company to do it alone. This merger imperils hundreds of jobs. It also weakens our democracy.

Very little will stop this deal. In one way or another, the damage done to Fairfax is a byproduct of One Nation’s desperate attempts to wound the ABC. Our media is in terrible strife. The government is untroubled by this. Indeed, it has encouraged it.

The reason for this is simple: The less the public knows, the better it is for politicians.

In the early 1990s, Malcolm Turnbull acted with Kerry Packer in a covert takeover bid for Fairfax. Turnbull leaked Packer’s involvement in the consortium and the Nine boss was thrown out of the deal. Turnbull said Packer’s involvement was “not only stupid but contrary to everyone’s interests”.

In leaking the details, Turnbull put himself at risk. Packer threatened to have him killed. Turnbull believed this threat to be credible, but he acted on principle. That was before he was prime minister.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "Fairfax to middling".

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