Late this afternoon ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, who as many readers of this blog will know was once a Fairfax senior executive, Twittered

Interesting times at Fairfax (understatement).

He should know. There has been turmoil at Fairfax of one sort or another since before Scott’s time, but the events of the last few hours are far in excess of average Fairfax trouble and angst. Who would have thought that the mild-mannered JB Fairfax would issue such a comprehensive dump on Fairfax Media Chairman Ron Walker?

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For those who haven’t caught up with the news, the Fairfax family has issued an extraordinary  statement announcing that it will not support Walker continuing in the post. So far the most definitive analysis on these events has been written by Steve Bartholomeusz in Business Spectator. I won’t attempt to replicate, and certainly can’t improve on his work.

Instead, some historical background, and some guesses about the future.

There has never been much love lost between the Fairfaxes and Ron Walker. When I interviewed JB Fairfax back in 2005, (before the Rural Press-Fairfax merger) he made it clear that Walker was not his kind of man.  Obviously, JB overcame his reservations sufficiently to carry Rural Press into Fairfax a while later, but it is equally clear that his doubts were not settled.

I gather that in recent times people came to expect that Walker would hang around long enough to open the new Age building later this year, then depart on the closest thing to a high that is to be had at present. When he announced unilaterally that he intended to hang around for another year and influence the renewal of the Board, it was too much for the Fairfax family.

Fairfax insiders tell me that there was a perception that Walker had candidates of his choosing lined up for Board positions. So far as the Fairfax family was concerned, it was time for the Walker influence to end.

So what happens now?

Well, it is hard to discern the vision. The Fairfax family statement talks about the need for renewal, but also makes it clear that it considers the present management team, largely from the Rural Press side of the company, to be satisfactory.  The statement says:

“After years of under performance Fairfax Media has a new management team, a streamlined cost base and is poised to rebuild some of the shareholder value that has been destroyed.”

Well, that is an optimistic view. The Fairfax family apparently  regards the current management team is part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. It is the Board and only the Board that needs a clear out. It is a conclusion that many Fairfax Media insiders would argue with.

On the other hand, managing a media company is surely one of the hardest jobs in business at the moment. Look around the world, and it is difficult to find examples of it being done well. The challenges are immense, and are part of the tide of history. They go beyond individuals. It is easy to criticise the management of media companies, but hard to say what else should be done.

When JB Fairfax returned to the company that bears his name, many people had hopes that he would arrive at a new vision based on commitment to journalistic values.

Last March, he was invited to give a speech at the Quill Awards at the Melbourne Press Club.  Some in the Press Club hoped for great things from this speech – an indication from this once committed newspaper man of what the future might hold, and how the good things about media could be carried forward into the future.  They were disappointed. The speech can be read here. It is a sorry document. I  commented on it at the time

I think this speech is one of the saddest things I have read for a long, long while. Like many people in the industry I have had a soft spot for JB. In the past he has had good things to say about journalism and newspapers. He has been the gentleman in a media industry full of spivs and bean counters. This speech tells me that JB Fairfax has given up.

There is perennial speculation that JB might want to take the Chairmanship of Fairfax himself. I doubt that he will. I wrote almost a year ago about my reasons for thinking that JB would prefer a back seat.  Not much has changed, except that everything has got worse. Perhaps he might now be persuaded, given the evident depth of his concern for the company, but I gather that he is still not keen on the job.

Instead, we should look to the next generation of Fairfaxes, and nobody seems to know much about how they see things.

If the Board is to be renewed, then we must hope that the new members will include at least some people with solid experience in media, as well as keen knowledge and ideas about digital media and internet futures. It is a very long time since Fairfax was guided by people who had a true passion for and knowledge of its core business.

Will that change? I hope so.

It would be nice to think that today’s events are the beginning of the end of Fairfax’s “interesting times”. Sadly, it may just be a bump on a steep downhill road.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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