Today’s newspapers were surprisingly bereft of commentary about yesterday’s extraordinary escalation of hostilities by the Roger Corbett-led group of independent directors on the Fairfax Media board.

Stephen Bartholomeusz (also in this Crikey bulletin) was the only commentator to comprehensively assess the implications of Ron Walker’s resignation statement and the subsequent inflammatory backing he received from the gang of five.

If this was the NAB, Coles Myer or WA News battles of days gone, the likes of Terry McCrann would have declared yesterday’s statement something akin to a suicide pact. It is becoming increasingly clear that either the Fairfax family must go or the Corbett-led gang of five must depart.

But for someone such as McCrann, or any other News Ltd commentator, taking that line would probably entail launching an attack on David Evans, the Murdoch associate on the Fairfax Media board.

Michael Pascoe pointed out in this recent video that Fairfax outlets have impartially covered the boardroom stoush and the challenge is now on for News Ltd outlets to do the same.

Evans sits with Rupert and James Murdoch on the BSkyB board and somehow was invited on to the Fairfax board in 2005 by Walker and his backers. However, with Eddie McGuire now attempting to damage Fairfax’s 3AW through his breakfast gig on Triple M (see Green Guide article), it is the Evans directorship of Village Roadshow that represents an even bigger conflict.

Evans was the Fairfax director who first broke ranks with the independent directors to launch an extraordinary attack on the Fairfax family in The Age on September 18, including these lines:

“John B. Fairfax bought his brother and sister’s stock back from them, then he had a margin call from Commsec for $400 million-plus. He secured a loan by pledging the Fairfax stock without disclosing this to the board.”

“Shorts [short sellers] and hedge funds carved up the stock to the tune of $2. The board insisted that he remedy that, he secured a loan from elsewhere to remedy it.”

Besides why should a director be crucified for actually increasing their stake in a company?

It was presumably Ron Walker who told BRW that his wealth had soared from $427 million in the 2008 Rich List to a staggering $768 million in the latest version released in May.

Yet somehow this wealthy man can spend seven years on the board and only manage to buy two million Fairfax shares — currently worth just $3.38 million or 0.05% of his net worth as reported by a credible Fairfax publication.

Even Corbett, who added more than $50 million to his net wealth during his career at Woolworths, has only managed to buy 99,000 Fairfax shares after seven under-performing years on the board. Yet he’s now happy to lead an attack on the one director prepared to put some serious skin into the game.

Besides, there is no suggestion that Marinya Media was ever actually margin called or forced to sell any shares, as the family explained in this article in The Australian last year.

Disclosure: the author is a Fairfax contributor and an independent candidate for the Fairfax Media board at the 2009 AGM in Sydney on November 10 who will be voting against the re-election of Roger Corbett.

Peter Fray

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