Sep 18, 2009

Beecher: Walker squabbles while Fairfax burns

The feud between Fairfax Chairman Ron Walker and the Fairfax family is like watching a brawl between the captain and senior personnel on the Titanic, while the ship sinks and the crew jump for their lives.

Eric Beecher — Chairman of Private Media (publisher of <em>Crikey</em>)

Eric Beecher

Chairman of Private Media (publisher of Crikey)

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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7 thoughts on “Beecher: Walker squabbles while Fairfax burns

  1. Patrick

    walker comes across as the worst type of the sydney/melbourne establishment.

    there for the prestige of sitting on various boards, without actually contributing anything.

    but, your point in relation to a lack of vision on his and other recent management may also ring true for brian mccarthy. in a recent conference call with analysts he was asked for his vision for fairfax media in the years to come. his reply was “cut costs”. not really a vision nor does it promote growth of a slowly withering business.

    vale fairfax

  2. Mr Squid

    fairfax hasn’t had a living brain cell of any species on its board, in its senior executive or involved in its editorial management since the 1970s.

  3. BH

    Well put, Eric. I really miss the old SMH.

    I stopped buying it when Walker joined the Board as a form of protest. The writing was on the wall then because I couldn’t work out what on earth he had that could enhance the Fairfax Board.

  4. Diana Simmonds

    “Then he should gracefully resign.”
    I’d pay money to see that.

  5. JamesK

    It’s just never the arrogantly left liberal partisan and related dross journalism that’s the problem for Beecher. In fact according to him that seemingly defines “quality” journalism!

    Under Walker, Fairfax delivered acceptable results to shareholders in an exceptionally difficult environment. It still maintains an underlying profit before massive asset write downs.

  6. AR

    The greatest shame/pity of the trashing of SMH (and mexican frendz tell me the Age, just slightly not so much) is that it leaves one little choice for budgie cages but the Oz – which I absolutely refuse to countenance, I love my budgue more than I love Xwords/Sudoku.

  7. Marty O'Neill

    Like so many others, I could never see the point of having a right-leaning prominent member of the Liberal party as Chairman of Fairfax – what were they thinking?

    and, now, the next Chairman seems likely to be Roger Corbett, a right-leaning Conservative christian – what was the Board thinking??

    My view is that as there is separation of Church and State, there must also be separation of Church & State & the business of delivering news – clearly, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Estates must ALWAYS operate independently – and be SEEN to be doing so

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