The shareholders, and the readers, are being treated with contempt. Neither of them say so in as many words, but that would be a fair summary of why two leading journalists and editors – Steve Harris and Gerard Noonan – have today announced their intention to nominate for the Fairfax Board.

Noonan announced his candidacy in this statement earlier today. Harris confirmed that he had nominated before today’s 5pm deadline in a telephone conversation with me a few moments ago.

Both men have what is generally agreed to be lacking on the Board at present: deep knowledge of media and journalism.

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Harris was declining to comment in his strategy for election, other than to say that he was not running on a ticket or as part of a group.

Noonan was more forthcoming. Noonan  is the long-running chair of industry superannuation fund Media Super,  and active in the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors and the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees. He made it clear that he will be using his reputation and connections to approach superannuation fund managers and, as he put it “encourage them to begin to use the fact that they are the owners of stock.”

Noonan has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and was editor of the Australian Financial Review between 1988 and 1992. He won the Walkley for Outstanding Journalist of the Year in 2007. He also has a long history of union activism, and has a history of balancing the interests of both the newsroom and the boardroom.

Harris is the first and only person who has been appointed editor in chief of both of Melbourne’s major journalism publishers – The Age and the Herald Sun. At The Age he was the first person to run both the paper’s editorial and commercial operations.

In a battle that has some undertones of Sydney v Melbourne, Noonan is a Sydney candidate, while Harris’s connections are in Melbourne.

Tonight Harris said he decided to run for the Board over the weekend, shortly after his return from an overseas trip. He declined to elaborate on his reasons, or his estimation of his chances, saying he preferred to inform the shareholders through the normal election processes.

Noonan was more forthcoming. He, too, made his decision over the weekend, as a result of the “recent eruption of childish corporate bickering” between the camps of Chairman Ron Walker and the Fairfax family.

A modern company, he said, needs a range of expertise and common sense on its board, and most of all a deep knowledge of the product that is being sold. “In the case of Fairfax, that is quality journalism.”

He commented on JB Fairfax and the former Rural Press management team now running the company.

“JB Fairfax comes from a media family and a media background,” he said. “But I think it is a step up from the world of Rural Press, which does important work in its own area, to the world of national media and high end journalism. It would be a step up for anybody, and particularly at a time when the industry is under stress.”

He extended his comments to CEO Brian McCarthy and other former Rural Press managers now dominant at Fairfax. “McCarthy ran a very shareholder friendly company for JB Fairfax at Rural Press and made a rich man even richer. ” But while running a media company at present would be tough for “even the most nimble footed management…I do not see signs of the company understanding that its got itself into something of a pickle as advertising revenue has drifted off into the ether.”

Noonan said that the failure to wrestle with the challenge of technological change began under Fred Hilmer, but the failure of Fairfax to move when classified job advertising site Seek came on the market recently suggested that the problems continued under the current management.

All very well, but what are the newcomer’s chances? Boards, after all, are particularly good at perpetuating themselves and not good at taking in fresh blood.

I understand that the Fairfax Board has decided in very recent days to reduce its numbers from the present nine (including CEO McCarthy) to eight. That means that of the three positions becoming vacant, only two will require filling, with Julie King not being replaced.

This decision has been kept so quiet that many shareholders, and even those within the company, are not aware it has been made. It is, to say the least, a strange move when the one thing all sides seem to agree on is the need for renewal and an injection of talent and industry specific expertise.

Meanwhile, Crikey founder Stephen Mayne nominated for the Board in his umpteenth attempt at corporate power before the unpleasantness of last week. In his Mayne Report today, he revealed that he was having lunch with Ron Walker last Thursday, just hours before the Fairfax family released their vituperative statement.

Oh to be a fly on the wall.

* Declaration: Both Steve Harris and Gerard Noonan are on the Board of the recently established Foundation for Public Interest Journalism, of which I am the chair.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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