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Robert Gottliebsen, the biggest name in business journalism, has walked out of BRW in a major blow to fairfax and a further boost to The Australian.
IN the slow moving world of business columnists, Robert Gottliebsen has just let a bomb go off at Fairfax by walking out on the magazine he founded and chairs, Business Review Weekly.

The defection to Rupert Murdoch’s flagship The Australia is a major blow to Fairfax because BRW will be the lesser for it and The Australian will be further strengthened as it beefs up its business section to take on Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review.

GILL UNDER PRESSURE

The person who will feel the heat most from this is Michael Gill, Fairfax’s head of business publications. Gill was already under pressure after an unprecedented accounting anomaly saw BRW’s circulation overstated by 10,000 in the first audit after the Gill-driven relaunch last year.

Fairfax and Gill in particular received an awful bucketing in the industry over this. There was a damning full page article in trade magazine Adnews. The mea culpa on the audit by Gill was apparently triggered by someone writing a letter to Fairfax chief executive Fred Hilmer. There was speculation that someone was Gottliebsen but Crikey has not confirmed this.

HILMER UNDER PRESSURE

The defection of Gottliebsen will further intensify the pressure on Hilmer being brought to bare by Kerry Packer who wants him out and is suing him personally and the Sydney Morning Herald for defamation. Gill was Hilmer’s hand-picked choice in 1998 to bring the Fairfax business publications under the one management structure. Previously Gottliebsen ran his own race as Chairman of BRW Media. But now he was answerable to Gill and tensions emerged when Gill ordered a relaunch of the magazine and tried to force Gottie to drop his regular show on Foxtel.

GOTTIE KEEPS THE TV GIG

Part of the deal with The Australian includes Gotty continuing his nightly program on Sky News which is screened at 8.30pm and 11.30pm. Given that Foxtel is 25 per cent owned by News Corp it does make more sense to have Gottliebsen working for one of the Foxtel shareholders. The Financial Review has recently begun a separate business report on cable television which was competing with Gottliebsen on Sky News, so Gill did have a point here. However, the Sky News program was great promotion for BRW and no-one stops Terry McCrann appearing on the Nine Network’s Business Sunday program each week. Most outlets crave media mentions by their competitors.

WHAT WILL THE FAIRFAX BOARD DO

It will be interesting to see how the Fairfax board responds to all this because most of them will be familiar with Gotty dating back from when he was the founding Chanticleer columnist in 1974. They would have followed his progress after he established BRW in 1981. Directors like Dean Wills, David Gonski, Sir Rod Carnegie and Mark Burrows will appreciate the gravity of the loss for BRW and Fairfax in general. Gill cannot afford any other high profile departures from the Fin Review but don’t be surprised if a couple more emerge in the near future.

PACKER RESPECTS WHISPERS

Kerry Packer tried to set up Australian Business in competition with BRW in the 1980s but it eventually folded. Gottie had the market sewn up and Packer himself was a fan of Whispers. Packer even had a bet with ACP chief executive John Alexander that he could not lure him across to The Bulletin. Alexander tried but failed – probably because the Bulletin is too marginal an operation for someone with the industry respect of Gottie. It loses $8 million a year and is constantly under the microscope. When Kerry Packer eventually leaves our earth, there is every likelihood that the less sentimental James Packer would close it straight away. Some Fairfax types who defected to The Bulletin are already complaining their profiles have fallen and they don’t want to be associated with a failure if the axe is eventually wielded.

TENSION BETWEEN WHISPERS AND GILL

The tensions with Gill flared shortly after Hilmer chose him ahead of former Chanticleer columnist Ivor Ries to run the business publications division at Fairfax. Gottliebsen was close to BRW editor Ross Greenwood and had selected him to replace David Uren in 1996. Ironically, Uren and Gottliebsen will now be reunited at The Australian, which is arguably top heavy with columnists, particularly in the Weekend edition. As many new managers do, Gill immediately set about replacing the three editors working under him. Some say this was confusing the notion of change with reform. Greenwood, who is also friendly with Ivor Ries, was shown the door – the argument being that he had too many balls in the air with other gigs.

The well-respected James Dunn, who had done an excellent job as founding editor of Shares Magazine, was also replaced. Ironically, he too went to The Australian as personal finance editor but has subsequently quit to join the new media world at listed financial information internet operator Investorweb. Dunn still has a column in the Weekend Australian.

WHAT WILL STUTCH DO WITH ALL THESE COLUMNISTS

With a wealth of columnists, the question now remains what The Australian’s Business Editor Michael Stutchbury will do with them all. The list now includes Brian Frith, Mark Westfield and Gottie on week day and then you add Terry McCrann and David Uren into the mix for the bumper weekend edition. It has been noticeable that Stutch has downgraded Terry McCrann’s weekend column to that black hole known as page two. Stutch’s predecessors Peter Alford and Steve Romei would often run McCrann off the front of the section. Many people also complain that Brian Frith’s columns – which run on page two during the week – are too dry for the new, vibrant Australian. Maybe hiring Gottie will give Stutch a reason to move on Frithy who has been columnising for more than 15 years.

WILL STUTCHBURY BE THE NEXT EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALIAN

Stutch is firming as a favourite to be the next editor of The Australian. His rival Peter Wilson, the national chief of staff, was not helped by a clash with Lachlan Murdoch and other managers last year over the question of internet access for reporters. David Fagan, whose partner Madonna King was hand-picked by Lachlan Murdoch last year to be deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, is considered the other inhouse contender to replace editor Campbell Reid when he eventually moves onto bigger and better things. If the hiring of Gottie turns out to be a big success, then Stutch’s aspirations for the top job could yet be fulfilled.

STUTCH JOINS RUPERT AFTER GILL GETS THE TOP JOB

Ironically, Stutch is one of many heavyweights who bailed from the Financial Review after Michael Gill’s appointment and his decision to bring Colleen Ryan back from Washington to replace Deborah Light as editor of the Financal Review. Stutch was part of the Nikko Hotel coup in 1998 when Lachlan, The Australian’s editor in chief David Armstrong, News group editorial director John Hartigan, Telegraph editor Col Allan and a couple of others set up in a suite next to Fairfax’s Darling Park offices and invited a procession of Fairfax staff in for a chat. This little exercise yielded Stutch, who most people regard as a great success at The Australian, and other such “coups” as Weekend columnist Emma Tom who Lachlan and David Armstrong love but most News Ltd journalists don’t rate.

BUT MURDOCH DOESN’T APPOINT FAIRFAX INTELLECTUALS AS EDITORS

Stutchbury is an intellectual heavyweight who ran Australia’s only effective campaign against the excessive cost of anti-competitive practices of the legal profession when on the Fin Review. He spent many years in Canberra and was also an excellent Washington correspondent for the AFR. However, News Ltd does not have a history of appointing long-time Fairfax staffers as editors. They want News loyalists who will toe the line. The poaching of Steve Harris in 1992 from the Sunday Age to the Herald Sun was a rare exception – and he did a good job picking up the pieces from the Piers Akerman reign of terror. However, Harris duly returned to be CEO of The Age in 1997, further reducing the prospects of a repeat hiring in News from the ranks of Fairfax.

Phil McLean was another free thinking intellectual who should have been appointed editor of The Daily Telegraph when Col Allan was elevated to editor in chief last year. However, Lachlan instead went for News loyalist and former police roundsman Steve Howard who did the job taking the Adelaide Advertiser downmarket when it went tabloid in 1998. McLean is now next in line to be editor of Fairfax’s Sydney Sunday paper, the Sun Herald. He has been conducting various raids on senior Telegraph staff at the same time as Stutch has been wreaking his revenge on Gill and the Fin Review.

GOTTIE IS THE NEWS EQUIVALENT OF PAUL KELLY

Col Allan once told me that one of the reasons Paul Kelly got “elbowed sideways” from editor to “international editor” of The Australian in 1996-97 was his big spending poaching battles with Fairfax. Stutch does not seem to be having any trouble raising the budget for what must be expensive raids on Fairfax. Gottie already has an impressive office assembled for him in the Melbourne office of The Australian at Southbank. However, with financial news content all the rage at the moment, these are probably investments worth making for News.

There are strong parallells between Gottliebsen and Paul Kelly. Both are considered legends in their fields. There were strong rumors that Kelly would join the Sydney Morning Herald when Campbell Reid and David Armstrong slightly downgraded The Australian’s coverage out of Canberra. However, unlike Gottliebsen, Kelly has stayed on board, seemingly content with writing occasional columns and travelling to various conferences around the world. Interestingly, Kelly was at a different conference in the US in 1998 at the same time Rupert was chairing his annual Sun Valley gabfest for top News Corp executives. People like Col Allan, John Hartigan, Terry McCrann and even Herald Sun football writer Mike Sheehan were at Sun Valley, but Kelly was nowhere to be seen. Maybe Gill or SMH publisher Greg Hywood will now make a play for Kelly in a revenge raid for the loss of Gottie.

NOT ENOUGH COMPETITION

The sad thing about all of this is the lack of competition in the Australian newspaper market. If you fall out with Fairfax you have little choice but to go and work for Murdoch, regardless of what you think of Rupert’s business and editorial practices. For all I know, Gottie might despise the fact that News Ltd journalists are expected to only write positively about Rupert Murdoch. The web is a great salvation in this regard. Many more business journalists will soon go the way of James Dunn and myself in working for internet start ups. Where else would you have the freedom to publish a 2000 word piece like this, frankly expressing views on all the media powerbrokers.

BREAK FREE AND JOIN THE CRIKEY

We at Crikey are keen to take on more journalists as contributors so we can accurately cover the Australian media, business and political scene. If you are sick of working for a mogul or fed up with the creeping cuts to editorial resources, then get in touch with us. At first you could contribute anonymously but as we grow there may be potential for more permanent positions. I am the only person checking emails sent to [email protected] so please get in touch soon. Or if you are worried about confidentiality, just set up an anonymous hotmail account.

Regards

Stephen Mayne

PS Tell your friends and all the men in China to subscribe so we can afford to hire people like Gottie and Paul Kelly.

Peter Fray

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