I am going to stick my neck out and say that I don’t think JB Fairfax is going to take the chairman’s job at Fairfax.

Why not? Partly, my hunch is based on an interview I conducted with him back in 2005, when I was researching my book, The Content Makers.

Now that was a while ago — before the merger of Fairfax and Rural Press. It may be that my observations then are no longer relevant. Nevertheless, over the last week I have kept remembering JB’s response when I asked him if his family would ever again be actively involved in the company that bears his name.

JB: Oh no. I mean, all that stuff is past, you can’t go back to the past, and there’d be huge expectations, it would be very demanding on a personal sense, umm, and as I said earlier, I think The Herald and The Age are fairly vulnerable.

ME: So the business model is broken?

JB: I think so, I think it is a very different picture. Umm, it’s a pity because I think this country and this city needs a good quality newspaper, and I don’t think it is getting it at the moment.

Obviously JB reconsidered enough to carry Rural Press into Fairfax a while later, but I have never forgotten the look on his face when he said those words about the “huge expectations”.

He looked almost frightened.

I think he was only too aware of how his family’s era was seen as a high point for newspaper journalism — a Golden Age. He didn’t want to incite hopes that he might bring that era back again: “All that stuff is past, you can’t go back to the past.”

Elsewhere in the interview, he said that in some ways he was grateful for what his cousin Young Warwick did in disastrously taking over the company, because it removed the sense of obligation from his own and the next generation’s shoulders.

My little conscience wouldn’t have allowed me to walk away from [Fairfax] lightly.

It would have been very difficult… I think that we’ve got to accept that things are going to change and are changing, I mean, the nice thing about our environment and what [Warwick] did to us… is that we, I, haven’t committed our children to something that has been going for a couple of hundred years, because I would have felt really awkward about putting any demands on them.

And I’ve said that to them all their lives. So, Rural Press is not the same, it doesn’t have the same history, or the obligation on them to continue it if they don’t want to.

But, he said, one thing that had altered his perspective in recent times was that the next generation was taking an interest — and in particular Nicholas Fairfax, now 36, who at the time of our interview had taken a seat on the Rural Press Board and is now on the board of Fairfax Media.

Family has always been of prime importance to the Fairfaxes, and I suspect that it is the next generation of the family that JB was thinking of during the Fairfax-Rural Press merger, and will have keenly in mind as he considers his own next move.

If I am right, if he does become chair, it will be for a short while with a view to handing on. Or else another man may keep the seat warm. Roger Corbett’s name is being mentioned.

Or perhaps Ron Walker will hang on for a little while longer — although in my 2005 interview, it was clear that JB was not a fan of Walker’s, and suspected him of being too close to the Packers.

Obviously a great deal has changed since I did this interview. The Packers are off the scene. And JB Fairfax has suffered more than anyone else as the share price has plunged. In recent weeks he has reportedly exerted himself towards moving Captain Kirk out of the company.

So perhaps I am wrong, and this gentle, gentlemanly man will take the helm after all. But my gut tells me otherwise.

If I am right, you read it here first. If I am wrong, please forget I ever said it.

Meanwhile, turning our attention to positions further down the ladder, well informed Fairfax sources are all abuzz with the changes they expect to follow from Brian McCarthy’s ascent to the CEO’s job.

Changes are certain, because a fair bit of the management structure at the moment reflects the conflict between Kirk and McCarthy, rather than any logic.

The leading example is the separate management of Fairfax Digital and the print products. The newsrooms might be integrated, but the management of the two products most certainly hasn’t been. With McCarthy running print, Kirk wanted someone else running the digital products.

Now the insiders are saying that Fairfax Digital CEO Jack Matthews might not be far behind Captain Kirk in exiting the company. There is also speculation that corporate spinner Bruce Wolpe and finance director Sankar Narayan may not be McCarthy’s kind of guys.

And so it goes on.

If Shakespeare was alive, in Australia and writing tragedies, he would surely be turning his attention to Fairfax Media. The characters are all there — good, bad and flawed. The hubris, high public purpose, clash of powerful men and so forth.

But where is the catharsis?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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