Kerry Stokes is certainly pulling out all stops to win two board seats at West Australian Newspapers. Seven’s Refresh The West website even features videos of four different newsagents ripping into the incumbent board and management.

Stokes lives in Sydney these days but is spending most of the next two weeks in Perth prosecuting his campaign. The normally media-shy billionaire has done several radio interviews and even addressed the West Coast Eagles President’s lunch last weekend.

However, the media blitz is yet to extend to talking to anyone from The West Australian, although his strong criticisms of the paper last week will force him to formally meet a delegation of journalists to discuss future management issues.

After yesterday’s strong quarterly profit result from WAN, a clear majority of institutional investors remain loyal to the incumbent board, which is what makes retail investors so important.

The board revealed yesterday that it spent $1.2 million of shareholder funds in the March quarter defending their position and Seven’s bill is likely to be even higher.

WAN is now also arguably deploying its editorial might against Seven as The West Australian’s hot-headed editor Paul Armstrong has cranked up the anti-Stokes coverage since coming under fire at last week’s business breakfast.

The Australian’s John Durie has today anointed outside candidate Peter Abery as a potential chairman, reflecting the view of some proxy advisers who seem to have gone cold on the better alternative, former Age and Herald Sun boss Steve Harris, simply because he hasn’t been able to return their calls.

The West Australian’s biggest problem relates to editorial and Harris would be perfect given his record includes the following:

  • As publisher (CEO) and editor-in-chief of The Age, he was the first person to seriously run all of the paper’s editorial and commercial operations and over a three year period lifted profits by 75% to record levels.
  • The West Australian is coming out of a period of editorial excesses and it was Harris who revitalised the Herald Sun by lifting its brand value and voice after the Piers Akerman excesses in the early 1990s, restoring balance and integrity to its political coverage.
  • Whilst The West Australian has completely missed the internet boat, The Age stole a march on its News Ltd competition during the Harris years.
  • Journalistic awards are vital for the reputation of any newspaper and both The Age and the Herald Sun delivered record hauls during the Harris years.

I’ve got my interview with Korn Ferry, the executive recruiter hired by Seven to select the two outside candidates they will back, at 5pm this afternoon and will use the opportunity to strongly argue the case for Harris.

Whatever happens, Kerry Stokes should not be chairman, yet so far he is silent on that issue.

Check out this Mayne Report package on the battle for WA News.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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