If you want to understand exactly how the federal government’s “reform”
plan to abolish the cross-media ownership rules will denigrate
Australian journalism and curtail media diversity, here it is.

Over the past week, four senior Fairfax commentators have written
columns about the media – and each column has included strong criticism
of the Fairfax management and board.

Why is this relevant? Because it could only happen at Fairfax. It could
never happen at PBL and News Limited, the two biggest media companies
who are almost certain to be the main beneficiaries of abolishing the
cross-media rules. Why? Because commentators who work for the Packers
or the Murdochs do not criticise their employers in public.

The government’s proposal to allow PBL and News to get bigger will
probably see Fairfax sold or merged. When that happens, Australians
will no longer be able to read the vigorous views of commentators like
Alan Kohler, John Durie, Stephen Bartholomeusz or Elizabeth Knight –
they will only be able to read the views of polite commentators who
never bite the hand that feeds them.

Here’s what the four columnists had to say about their own employer:

“MBA schools will be studying Fairfax’s performance in dealing with the
challenges of the digital revolution in decades to come. It appears to
be a classic case of incumbent paralysis – of a highly profitable
business unable or unwilling to forgo current profits or change its
traditional mindset in the face of a shifting environment.” – Alan Kohler, Smage, Wednesday

“…John Fairfax faces a huge credibility gap with the online set,
which must be addressed … if Fairfax is being left on the shelf, its
reputation as an old media player that doesn’t ‘get’ the internet is
far more the reason than being outsmarted by Packer or anyone else.” – John Dure, Financial Review, today (not online)

“While there is no guarantee that anything would happen if the
ownership rules were abolished – there would be some synergies from
bringing together one of the big print media groups (News or Fairfax)
and a network, but the concept isn’t necessarily compelling – any
combination of print and TV would increase the concentration of
ownership and power. It is not easy to see public benefit in reforms
that reduce the already limited diversity of ownership without an
offsetting opening up of the broadcast environment to new players.” – Stephen Bartholomeusz, Smage, Saturday

“The extent of internet cannibalisation in classified advertising is as
yet unknown. So buying Fairfax at this time, when it continues to
struggle with circulation and classified advertising losses, is a
risk.” – Elizabeth Knight, SMH, Wednesday

Peter Fray

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