The newspapers are full of news and views on the elevation of Roger Corbett as chairman of the Fairfax Media Board, and the apparent breakout of shaky peace in the boardroom.

Steve Bartholomeusz sums up the issues, and I also made a contribution on my blog last night. Interestingly, that post is attracting well above average viewer numbers, and has a comment thread that includes mostly positive perspectives from people who clearly have experience with Corbett.

But amidst all the commentary, something is missing. What has happened to the three candidates who have already nominated for the board?

They are, for those not in the know, Steve Harris, who is former publisher and editor in chief of The Age, as well as former editor in chief of the Herald Sun; Crikey founder Stephen Mayne, and veteran Fairfax journalist and former editor of the Australian Financial Review, Gerard Noonan.

Of these three, Harris is the most serious and credible contender. Even his putative rival, Stephen Mayne, said to me this morning that it was staggering the board wasn’t “scooping him up”.

With the possible exception of an understanding of new media, Harris has exactly the kind of experience the board says it wants. Yet the board has made it next to impossible for him or any of the contenders to be elected by recommending against all three contenders, and announcing that neither departing chairman Ron Walker nor retiring director Julia King will be replaced.

That means that when the AGM is held on 10 November, the three contenders will be running against Roger Corbett for the sole vacancy. Once Corbett inevitably wins, he will then oversee an “orderly” renewal process and search for new candidates.

Now, there is nothing unusual about this. Boards like to control these processes, and it would be extraordinary for the existing board to be forced to accept someone they don’t want.

Yet the fact that it has come to this is at the very least an extraordinarily bad piece of planning, or rather lack of planning. Three credible candidates have put up their hands in a process where the board has basically shown a lack of good faith.

The board has known for some time that Julia King was retiring. It seems to be agreed on all sides that there is a lack of media experience on the board. Yet over a long period, the board has not been able to organise the needed mix of media and new media experience nor, by the by, gender balance, or significant representation from people under the age of sixty five.

It reinforces the point I made on the blog last night. If in six months time the Fairfax board still lacks a) journalistic experience b) new media experience and c) publishing experience, then it will be cause for despair. Gender balance and youth would be nice as well.

There really is a limit to how long this stultifying atmosphere of suppression and control can continue in a new media world that is all about learning to accept new distributions of power.

In my view, Corbett’s window of time to show that he can make a difference is very short indeed.

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
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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