Could the imminent break-up of Fairfax be the death blow to independent business and financial journalism in Australia?

If either PBL or News Corp grab the Australian Financial Review — a likely scenario and one both media owners would find desirable — will this new corporate ownership spell the end of the era of the AFR as an unaligned business media voice?

Love it or leave it, for the Australian business community the Financial Review is the bible. It examines all industries widely and is the only investigative financial publication in the country — think about investigations like the Rivkin/Richardson/ Trevor Kennedy Swiss Bank accounts stories. Sometimes it fawns on businessmen and companies but sometimes it also whacks them.

The commentary is independent in places like the Chanticleer column and its political reporting is independent, critical — especially in the economic and business policy area — and at times forceful.

It’s been that way since its inception, with the likes of Vic Carroll, Max Newton, Max Walsh, Paddy McGuinness, Fred Brenchley, Tony Maiden, Alan Kohler and lately, Glen Burge, editing the publication.

But that could all end. If the likes of Rupert Murdoch or James Packer get hold of it, all independent examination of Australian business, politics, industry and affairs generally will stop.

Owned by the Packer camp, it’s impossible to believe there would be objective coverage of politics — James Packer owes John Howard too much — not to mention independent coverage of PBL’s other industries like gambling, property and financial services.

It’s easy to judge just how much the Packer camp values independent journalism — not a lot. The Bulletin is a struggling house journal doing puff pieces on associates like Qantas boss and PBL board director, Geoff Dixon. Business Sunday on Channel Nine was killed and Sunday has been neutered.

And for an idea of the fearless, independent, accurate business journalism you could expect if the AFR was owned by News Corp, take a look at the first few pars of today’s commentary from News Limited in-house spruiker/commentator Terry McCrann in the Herald Sun:

So far, the frenzy is entirely imaginary

Helen Coonan and Graeme Samuel are right. Cold showers would be a good idea all round.

The new media rules have not unleashed a frenzy of takeover action. They have not led to the concentration of media that is apparently going to destroy democracy in Australia. Frenzy? Concentration? How about: no change. At least so far.

But in any event, here’s a prediction. There is no way we will see a repeat of the 1986-87 frenzy.

Yes, there will be takeovers. But they are likely to be at the periphery. We are likely to see much more financial leverage deals like the PBL one. Where crucially, underlying control does not change.

All James Packer has done is to introduce new shareholders into his media businesses. And redirect $4.5 billion from banks and private equity investors into his balance sheet.

They have not taken over anything and are unlikely to — except if they pick up some media pieces in another carve-up. But they would be reasonably peripheral.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey