Ron Walker is now chairman of Fairfax – which effectively makes him the
“proprietor” of Australia’s most important newspaper company and one of
the most powerful media makers in the country. So when will he start
flexing his muscles, and what flexing will he do?

Expect him to start with his hometown paper, The Age. Walker, a former Liberal Party treasurer and strong Howard supporter, would have been appalled at what he read in Saturday’s Age
about the government’s proposed industrial relations changes. Walker’s
paper had no fewer than five broadsheet pages devoted to the IR changes
– nearly all of them negative towards the government. They included:

Fair pay job incompatible with faith: churchman – a page-one
news story suggesting that “the new head of Australia’s Fair Pay
Commission should face a crisis of conscience between his faith as an
evangelical Anglican and his role determining the wages of the lowest
paid.”

The revolution we had to have? – a long feature story arguing that the new legislation is “a step into the unknown.”

IR for beginners – Tim Colebatch’s half-page guide to the changes, including predictions that “many workers will be made worse off.”

The big clean-out – a full-page feature predicting that “the
low-paid and the unskilled are set to feel the heat,” and “workers in
the $3 billion cleaning industry look vulnerable.”

Government runs risk of discrediting case for IR reform – the
paper’s main editorial that starts with the words: “John Howard knows a
thing or two about scare campaigns,” and ends with the words “Of
course, if Australians don’t like this choice, they will ultimately
have the power to make another choice at the ballot box.”

The Howard payback revolution – staff commentator Shaun Carney’s
column which claims that “probably the most disappointing aspect of
these changes is that they are redolent of political payback.”

It is hard to imagine
Walker sitting idly by while “his” newspaper attacks the government so
aggressively, and reinforces its reputation as a left-wing Howard
opponent. Imagine Walker trying to defend the Spencer Street Soviet’s
stance on IR to his Liberal Party friends.

So what will he do? He could complain to the editor, but that’s
unlikely to achieve the turnaround in political posture that he
requires. After all, Fairfax has an editorial code of conduct that’s
supposed to separate church (editorial) and state (business).

No, his real answer will be to dump the editor, and after last week’s
very poor six-month audited circulation figures he now has the pretext
to move on Andrew Jaspan, an editor who’s still fairly new to the job and so far has won little support inside Fairfax.

Walker’s choice to edit The Age
is no secret – he wants Melbourne talkback host Neil Mitchell in the
chair. Mitchell’s politics are much closer to Walker’s (and Howard’s),
and he is a populist who writes a column in the rival Herald Sun and espouses nearly all the redneck causes that – in his and Walker’s view – would lift the circulation of The Age.

Whether new readers attracted by such redneckery are what The Age really needs is probably, now, irrelevant. Unless The Age
can stop its bleeding circulation, which coincides with its steady loss
of classified advertising profits, the issue for the paper will be
survival rather than editorial gravitas. And that’s an issue
Walker can carry with the Fairfax board and its new CEO, David Kirk,
none of whom have any newspaper publishing experience of any kind.

Get ready for the Walker – and Mitchell – Age. The only issue now is the size of hapless Andrew Jaspan’s payout.

Peter Fray

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