Margaret Jackson leaves the Fairfax board, bound for wine and News Corp?

Big changes on Sydney media boards today with Margaret Jackson quitting John Fairfax and Sam Chisholm reported to have stepped down as chairman of the private John Singleton company, Macquarie Media Investments.

Check out the Fairfax ASX announcement here. It was a terse two paragraph statement from the company and chairman Dean Wills, saying Jackson would be leaving at the end of August, to join Southcorp and wished her well.

The Chisholm resignation story was in today’s Australian business section under a Mark Day by-line: Chisholm resigns from Mac Media

It says Chisholm quit because “of a conflict of interest” between his chairmanship of Macquarie, which had expressed ambitions to bid for a TV licence, should a fourth licence become policy, and his position on the Telstra board where he’s also chairman of Foxtel.

Day suggested that Mark Carnegie might be appointed a chairman. He was the Singleton executive and board member who floated the fourth network idea a month ago and currently chairs the publically listed Singleton vehicle.

Chisholm’s reported decision came as the AFR reported today that the ALP had deferred any decision in making the fourth commercial licence policy until after the election. And it also came as ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel was widely reported today as again urging Telstra to sell its half ownership of Foxtel to improve competition.

And while the Chisholm move will catch some eyes, it is the move by Margaret Jackson that will set the tongues a’ clicking as she once again proves herself to be a serial board hopper.

The reason cited in the Fairfax statement to the ASX was that she was heading for Southcorp where she was to become deputy chairman. She replaces another director whose departure was announced today. That will put her in line to be chairman if and when Brian Finn steps down.

On the face of it, a curious decision. Being a board member of Fairfax is more powerful than joining an underperforming wine company with a powerful minority shareholder whose family involvement has hurt the company badly.

I am of course referring to the Oatley family, which convinced the old Southcorp board to pay around $1.6 billion for assets of some $600 million in their Rosemount wine business. Bob Oatley’s son-in-law Keith Lambert was installed as CEO and proceeded to almost wreck the country’s premier maker of premier wines. It is still in recovery mode and will be until 2008, judging by the comments at the time of the latest restructuring six weeks ago.

Why Margaret Jackson would want that, other than the directors’ access to good wines, especially Grange, is hard to fathom. Jackson is of course chairman of Qantas, so flying to Sydney for board meetings of Fairfax would not have been a great task.

So questions arise. Is this a sort of protest against the decision by the Fairfax board to select, in a very ham-fisted manner, foreigner Andrew Jaspan as the new editor-in-chief of The Age?

Jackson has been part of the Melbourne faction on the Fairfax board, led by Sir Rod Carnegie and Ron Walker. Is this a genteel protest at the failure to select Melbourne boy and great News Ltd journalist, Peter Wilson, or even 3AW morning host Neil Mitchell, a particular favourite of Walker’s? If it is, it is very different to the method chosen by that other well-known Melbourne femme, Cathy Walter, to indicate her displeasure at the NAB.

Peter Wilson was discarded several weeks ago and the Fairfax management was set to announce the Jaspan appointment last week. It didn’t for some unknown reason, but it leaked and the news was officially broken on the website of The Scotsman, a rival to the Sunday Herald, which he edited up until getting the Age gig.

The Age’s House Committee protested at the botched arrangements in a letter to Fairfax management earlier this week – as The Australian gleefully reported: Angry journos slam Age search.

But Jackson’s jump is just another in a now growing CV of upwardly spiralling departures and joining that he seen her approach the summit of Australian business.

She’s chairman of Qantas. Her predecessor, Gary Pemberton, gained the nickname, ‘Parachute Pemberton’ for the way he bailed from TAB, Qantas and the Sydney Olympics along the way of retiring to the Gold Coast where he chairs surfwear group, Billabong International.

Jackson is also a director of Billabong. Jackson was on the boards of both BHP and Pacific Dunlop in the 90’s when both companies struck trouble. BHP with Magna Copper in the US – a $3 billion excursion into fantasyland – while Pacific Dunlop just lost its way in the aftermath of the poorly thought out move in and out of food.

Jackson actually chaired the audit committees of both companies. But departed when made chairman of Qantas in 2000. She also joined Billabong in the same year after succeeding Pemberton at the top of Qantas. She is also a director ANZ Bank, all good fee-earning and influential boards, but nothing like the board of a media company.

So where will Margaret Jackson go next?

Well think Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation. Her discussions with an intermediary about joining the News board were made public and she changed her mind when Crikey pointed out the inappropriateness of her doing that after joining the Fairfax board.

But now no Fairfax, and with Rupert looking for a woman director, and looking for help in Australia to get his domicile shift approved, a decision by ‘Dame’ Margaret to join News Corp can’t be ruled out.

It would be sold on the basis of having strong Australian-based directors on the board. She would no doubt go onto the News Ltd board.

In both cases she would be able to exchange plane stories with that great international aviator, Ken Cowley, of Ansett fame. And there would be some nice media chats on the Qantas board with James Packer.

And of course, she would have to consult fellow chairman Graham Kraehe of the NAB (for another 14 months) about wine, seeing he was CEO of Southcorp up until the Rosemount deal, and News Corp, where he was a director until earlier this year.

Peter Fray

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