The carve-up of John Fairfax, Australia’s oldest and most venerable media company, is now underway.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp spent $360 million last night securing a 7.5% stake in Fairfax at $5.20 a share, which sent the stock soaring 20c to $4.94 this morning.

Whilst a $6 billion News Corp takeover is patently ridiculous, given the dominance such a beast would have in newspapers, Rupert has taken a seat at the table for what he believes will be a board-driven carve-up.

“It is purely an investment and is entirely friendly to the existing Fairfax board,” was how Rupert’s mouthpiece Andrew Butcher explained it this morning.

Given that James Packer spent an hour with Fairfax chairman Ron Walker at Bondi’s Lamrock Café last weekend, Australia’s two richest families clearly both believe Walker’s board can be charmed into a friendly break-up. And Walker claims to be old family friends of both the Murdochs and the Packers. Maybe Walker himself has eyes for one of the parts — The Age?

The scenario is strikingly similar to 1987 when Rupert moved on the Herald & Weekly Times to keep its newspapers whilst its various radio and television assets were sold off as the curtain came down on a diverse independent media giant.

Whilst many pundits were expecting News Corp to make a move into free-to-air television, you need to remember the history. Rupert’s father, Sir Keith Murdoch, first started out in journalism as Malvern correspondent for The Age in 1903. Add to this the fierce rivalry between Fairfax and Murdoch family interests for 70 years and it is not surprising that Rupert has launched what looks like a sentimental raid.

Rupert would love to cap his extraordinary career by owning The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald — and this would be no problem if he flipped the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph into the new PBL Media vehicle.

One joker in the pack here could be Lachlan Murdoch. Rupert would love him to re-join News Corp but Sydney-based Lachlan could emerge as a stand-alone player or he could be flicked some assets in the carve-up to either run or own.

There will be endless scenarios played out over the coming months – does Rural Press want the regional papers, who gets the internet properties, how would a Packer-owned AFR cover PBL — but the bottom line is that the once great independent media company John Fairfax probably won’t exist by April Fool’s Day next year.

And that will be a sad thing for Australia’s democracy – particularly if the carve-up is conceived and directed by Australia’s two richest families in concert with the utterly inappropriate Fairfax chairman, Ron Walker.

Peter Fray

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