Here’s a good story which all those hundreds of journalists in the
Fairfax Darling Park tower in Sydney seem to have missed. Crikey is
reliably informed that Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan
attended a boardroom lunch at Fairfax late in the week preceding Ron
Walker’s $1.8 million share plunge.

The Fairfax chairman was the host and other attendees included Westpac
CEO David Morgan, Network Ten executive chairman Nick Falloon and
Fairfax CEO David Kirk. In other words, there are plenty of witnesses if Coonan let slip that
her Cabinet submission was going to allow for a media takeover
free-for-all starting in 2007.

Ron Walker’s share purchases announcement is detailed here and this is how the time frame works.

July 6 or 7: Coonan attends Fairfax boardroom lunch hosted by Ron Walker
Monday, July 10: Walker buys 150,000 Fairfax shares at $3.78
Tuesday, July 11: Walker buys 50,000 shares at $3.78
Wednesday, July 12: Cabinet approves media package and Walker buys 71,000 shares at $3.95. Fairfax shares jump 10c to $3.90.
Thursday, July 12: Cabinet decision announced and Walker buys 100,000 shares at $4.08. Fairfax shares jump 23c to $4.13.

It’s not a good look but Ron is now running the bizarre ethical position that it is OK for a chairman to buy shares in a company
after the close of a financial year but before the profits are
announced, but not OK for the same chairman to buy stock when its
strategic plan is being reviewed?

The Fairfax papers have predictably dropped off the Walker story today but the Herald Sun has followed up and there is even a brief item inThe Guardian. However, is anyone else surprised at the lack of comment? Crikey is the
only outlet which has openly criticised Ron Walker’s decision to buy
the shares and the feedback has been strongly supportive. This is what
the former finance director of a listed company writes:

I think you’re absolutely right to go Ron Walker regarding the share purchases. His claim in The Age that this was one of the
short windows when directors can purchase is total garbage. If there is one period when share trading is off
limits for directors – and often for senior execs – it is between the end of the
financial year, when insiders know revenues and should have a good indication of
profits from management accounts, and the announcement of annual results, when
the outsiders are brought into the “know”.

So why aren’t other outlets hopping into Ron? James Packer is an old
mate of the former Liberal Party bagman and last year described his ascension to the Fairfax
throne as “an inspired choice”.

News Ltd would ordinarily love kicking the bejeezus out of a
compromised competitor but this morning it has gathered with Fairfax in
Sydney to launch the Newspaper Marketing Agency. Then you have the
proposal to merger the online jobs sites run by Fairfax and News. Oh
dear, surely this isn’t going to turn out to be a classic demonstration
of the dangers of allowing media consolidation.

Is Ron Walker so well connected with the key political, business and
media players that he can avoid criticism after making a stupid
blunder? That’s not a good look for our democracy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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