The decline of The Australian Financial Review continues apace. Well, decline from the point of view of journalism. But it is steadily improving as a promotional rag for virtually every business thoughtbubble — The Fin, it seems, will run anything, as long as they can slap “exclusive” on it.

The result is a steadily-growing divide between what happens inside the pages of The Fin and the events in the real world.

Take this morning’s front page, giving space to media oligopolist John Porter, CEO of regional subscription TV group Austar, the company that for a decade or more refused to compete against Foxtel.

Porter wants Foxtel, the company that wants to swallow Austar in a monopolist merger, to be allowed to sell broadband and internet services. This means Porter wants Telstra, which will fund 50% of the takeover of Austar (even if its 100% debt financed the underpinning for Foxtel’s credit standing is Telstra’s 50% control) to then allow Foxtel to compete against it in the fastest growing area of communications.

Porter’s justification is that this would increase subscription TV penetration rates in Australia, because the NBN will “destroy” sections of the media industry. Plainly he believes Foxtel will be one of those facing destruction. No wonder he and John Malone are taking the money and running.

Then there’s Myer’s Bernie Brookes, threatening to not open on Sundays and to stop hiring kids because of penalty rates. Brookes is given paragraph after paragraph to whinge about the Fair Work Act, with no effort at balance from The Fin journalist.

If Myer isn’t making money on Sundays or any other day of the week, it should stop trading. Simple. If Brookes is such an advocate of muscular capitalist competition, he shouldn’t threaten through the business rag, he should act.

Somehow we suspect he won’t.

But the doozy is the latest instalment of The Fin’s shameless reporting of the chairmanship for the Future Fund. Instead of criticising the board of guardians of the Fund for leaking like a sieve and rampant self-interest, starting with David Murray and then going on to Peter Costello, the paper has confected a political/business brawl that didn’t exist, except in the minds of the paper’s leadership, Murray and some of the raging egos of the Future Fund board.

What should have been on the front page was Laura Tingle’s outstanding analysis of the issue in her “Canberra Observed” column down the back. But that would have exposed the paper’s reporting this week on the story for what it was: bullshit.

Tingle pointed out that four of the seven guardians on the Fund had told David Gonski that the new chairman should be one of them. As Tingle observed: several board members acknowledged that Peter Costello was a candidate for the chairmanship, but that they should also be considered. What a bunch of egotists.

Tingle also points out that appointing Costello would have meant a former politician was appointed chairman, regardless of the point that the Fund is a national asset and, like the Reserve Bank, has to be independent and seen to be independent of the government of the day. Imagine the outcry — led by The Fin — if Labor had appointed a former Labor figure: a Keating, a Goss, an Egan.

It’s rare to get Keating and his ’93 opponent John Hewson on the same page, but they’re in fierce agreement on one thing: Costello was a lazy treasurer. Obsessed with the leadership, he let spending get away from him in the last term of the Howard government, but cravenly blamed his prime minister for it all in his memoir, as if he was a mere bystander. And read what Ross Gittins had to say about Costello’s “behind-the-scenes bullying” in 2005.

What has Costello done since leaving politics? After being unable to lock down a major corporate gig, he fetched up at a boutique merchant bank, ending up running around South-East Asia trying to stitch together deals. Cossie the Cambodia Kid even got his mates to fly his colours for Strauss-Kahn’s IMF position last year.

As Tingle noted, it is up to the government, not the raging egos of the Future Fund board, to appoint the chairman. That’s exactly as it should be. The Future Fund is not an ordinary corporate board, where the boys’ club stitches up positions for its mates. It is a key national institution and good governance, accountability and performance are crucial to government finances and business investment (just ask Telstra).

As the lead business paper in this country, The Fin should have come down on the board and Murray like a tonne of bricks for breaching every known governance rule and for putting self advancement over national good. Murray, remember, is the bloke who has cost the Fund millions of dollars in returns from his ignorant campaign against Telstra and savaged the government for not ripping billions more out of the economy by adopting a fiscal hairshirt. Murray’s petulance last year before his appointment was extended by a year, was nothing short of hypocritical given his rush to bag Telstra and then join the current row.

Instead, The Fin relied on the Future Fund board for a series of leaks. Bagging them might have appeared ungrateful.

The appointment of Gonski should be welcomed because he’s a senior business leader in this country and has the expertise and experience to chair the Future Fund. Costello doesn’t. Simple. The only thing we should be criticising the government for is keeping Murray on for a year rather than putting Gonski in earlier.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey