“I’ve always had conflicts of interest, there’s nothing new about that, and I accept the criticism.” So said the Chair of Fairfax Media, Ron Walker, in this profile last year.

Walker has now gained a giant new conflict with the revelation that he is involved in a company pushing to set up Australia’s first nuclear power plant in either Victoria or South Australia.

This means Fairfax newspapers are in an enormously difficult position. The nuclear power plant proposal is a vitally important story, but what chance do the journalists have of covering it in a tough and fair fashion, and being seen to do so, when their chairman has such a clear and commercial interest in the outcome of the debate?

Age editor Andrew Jaspan gives his staff the impression that he is close to Walker and, to put it nicely, sensitive to his views and feelings. Jaspan reportedly often says things in news conferences that have apparently come straight from the Chairman’s desk.

Walker, meanwhile, is fond of referring to Jaspan almost affectionately, if not a little condescendingly, as the “very feisty” Age editor.

Perhaps not feisty enough. The Age has been comprehensively scooped on this yarn by the Herald-Sun, which would suggest that either Walker did not tell Jaspan about his new interest, or that the news was confided “off the record”.

Nor did Age reporters seem any better informed this morning, with this website report falling back on the rubric “according to reports” and on quotes from the state premiers to stitch together the follow-up story.

Arguably that is better than taking the drip from the Chairman’s office, but it nevertheless highlights how difficult if will be for The Age to manage the situation. Oh to have been a fly on the wall in The Age news conference this morning!

How will the conflict be managed? Age editor Andrew Jaspan did not return a call asking for comment before deadline. Walker himself was also unavailable and so was Fairfax CEO David Kirk.

So too John Brehmer Fairfax, the man tipped to one day replace Walker as Chairman of Fairfax if the planned merger with Rural Press goes ahead. When the merger was announced last December, JB Fairfax said he would consider the chair’s position if Walker fell under a bus. Walker reportedly responded that he was always careful crossing the road.

Perhaps, to mix metaphors past breaking point, the nuclear power plans are a bus of Walker’s own making – his plans for life after Fairfax.

On the other hand, as Walker himself acknowledged, his conflicts of interest are nothing new.

Peter Fray

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