Whenever the obituaries are written about the great Fairfax mastheads and their journalism, the name of Ronald Joseph Walker AC CBE will figure prominently. Not as he would wish to be remembered — as the grand protector of that newspaper heritage — but as the chairman who presided over World War 3 in his boardroom at the precise point in time when the company needed to do one thing properly: find a strategy to survive in the digital world.
It seems almost surreal that Walker is enmeshed in a bitter public feud with the Fairfax family over the board composition of Australia’s storied newspaper empire, while under his custodianship the board he leads has failed completely to address the challenge of how quality journalism and serious media — the benchmarks by which Fairfax is judged — can be funded in the future.
Indeed, the current board fight has nothing to do with that subject or with the company’s survival strategy. No mention of the future of newspapers or quality journalism. No mention of how Fairfax can reinvent itself. Just a group of middle-aged men squabbling in public about who should sit in their boardroom and whether their company bought the right assets a few years ago.
It is like watching a brawl between the captain and senior personnel on the bridge of the Titanic while the ship sinks and the passengers and crew jump for their lives.
Ron Walker’s reign as Fairfax chairman is the story of the disconnect between the unravelling of Fairfax’s major commodity — newspapers — and the company’s insouciant response to that crisis. While comparable newspaper companies around the world grapple openly and agonisingly with this dilemma, Fairfax has either ignored or rejected the debate — and therefore ignored or rejected any kind of solution other than to cut costs and then cut them some more.
Now, just as the opportunity arises to reinvigorate the board with people who understand journalism and media in order to start addressing the survival issue, Walker has decided to turn the boardroom into a battlefield for no reason other than to massage his own ego.
To have any chance of surviving the media industry maelstrom, Fairfax needs to be guided by people like the Fairfax family, who understand newspapers and journalism, and others like them. The company never needed property developers like Walker or retailers like Roger Corbett (who is likely to be the company’s next chairman), and certainly doesn’t need them now.
Ron Walker should think hard about legacy — his own and Fairfax’s. Then he should gracefully resign.
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