Was there ever a company more clearly in need of new blood than Fairfax Media? Today, it seems that chairman Ron Walker may go quietly as part of a compromise with the Fairfax family, after their aggressive assault on his position late last week.
Analysts are suggesting that by doing so he hopes to preserve the position of his chosen successor, Roger Corbett, who is still apparently acceptable to the institutional investors and the Fairfax family, if not exactly embraced with enthusiasm.
Both sides of this dispute are spouting about board renewal, but I gather that behind closed doors, decisions of the board suggest neither side is really interested in what that implies.
I am told that the board decided to reduce its numbers from nine (including CEO Brian McCarthy) to eight. That means that Julie King, whose position falls vacant at this AGM, will not be replaced.
That will make it harder for new blood to be introduced. Only two positions will be up for grabs — Corbett’s and Walker’s.
Yet there is new blood on tap. As I reported last night, Steve Harris, the first and only person who has been appointed editor-in-chief of both of Melbourne’s major journalism publishers, is a candidate, adding his name to that of Gerard Noonan, whose candidacy was announced on Crikey yesterday. Noonan is former editor of the Australian Financial Review and long-standing chairman of Media Super.
Noonan has serious institutional investor connections, having been a figure in industry superannuation for decades. Whether this translates into support remains to be seen. He has hardly been backwards in promoting his views, which may antagonise more people than it persuades.
He made it clear in his interview with me last night that he believes the transition from Rural Press to Fairfax Media has been too big a step up for JB Fairfax and the Rural Press management team.
Harris is taking a more softly, softly approach, leaving his pitch to shareholders for the normal processes of board elections. That may prove to be the wiser course.
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But does either of them have a chance?
If board appointments were a meritocracy, both men would have to be serious candidates, with Harris attracting a strong Melbourne vote. Sadly, the Fairfax board, like many others, is better at perpetuating itself than reinventing and reinvigorating.
For the number of positions to be reduced at a time when the board is clearly dysfunctional is nothing short of a scandal. Surely the institutional investors will not be content to sit on their hands?
*Declaration: Steve Harris and Gerard Noonan are on the board of the recently established Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. I am the chair.