The decision by Fairfax to kill the 10,000-word profile of Wendi Deng by Eric Ellis has done some serious damage to the company’s reputation for fearless publishing. Indeed, even the venerable Financial Times of London had a crack at Fairfax last week when the following appeared in its gossip column:
Some of the Australian-born media baron’s rivals seem to be getting squeamish about writing about Murdoch and his family. The Sydney Morning Herald, owned by Fairfax Media, long the most important competitor of Murdoch’s News Ltd in Australia, had commissioned a prize-winning journalist to write a lengthy story about Wendi Deng, Murdoch’s third wife (and former employee of Star TV), who was born and raised in China.
But after the story landed and was much praised by editors for the quality of its research, a sudden decision was made last week not to run it.
This act of craven subservience has striking parallels with the gutless and politically stacked ABC board pulling the plug on the Chris Masters biography of Alan Jones, guaranteeing Jonestown would be a best seller for Allen & Unwin.
The global publicity about Fairfax’s spinelessness is likely to do the same for the Ellis profile of Wendi Deng, which is now said to be in hot demand. When it does inevitably see the light of day in a blue-chip publication, Fairfax will have egg all over its face. We still have no answers as to why the story was pulled, but the buck ultimately stops with Fairfax chairman Ron Walker who, after the Rural Press shareholder vote on 19 April, was quoted as saying:
I’ve known Rupert Murdoch for 45 years, I speak to him regularly, he’s a great friend, and we co-exist together in the same markets.
Long-term Fairfax director Mark Burrows has long been close to Murdoch and is believed to have led the charge against the Ellis piece at board level. Indeed, this appeared in The SMH three months ago in a piece assessing Fred Hilmer’s new book on Fairfax:
A Fairfax executive says that while the purchase (of News Corp’s New Zealand publishing assets) fitted with Hilmer’s earnings diversification strategy, it was driven by the board, particularly the directors Mark Burrows and David Gonski, who were close to Murdoch.
The same piece also established Murdoch’s track record of complaining:
Hilmer also shared correspondence with Murdoch, who wrote to him complaining that Fairfax’s coverage of the pregnancy of his wife, Wendi Deng, was “beneath contempt”.
So was the decision to pull the Ellis piece.