Business Spectator last night hosted a farewell party for one of its longest-serving columnists, political commentator Rob Burgess, who has taken redundancy from the News Corp-owned website.

Burgess is one Business Spectator’s most-read columnists, and his departure has raised eyebrows within the stable. One insider told Crikey Burgess is on the way out for being “too left-wing”. Burgess, in his columns, has been a reliable supporter of things like carbon pricing, the national broadband network, and the mining tax.

When Crikey called Burgess this morning to ask whether his left-wing positions were part of the reason for his departure this morning, he said he did “champion policies that were unpopular with some other journalists” at the stable.

But he said his positions weren’t “left-wing”. “In supporting policies like carbon pricing, I don’t think there was anything left-wing about what I wrote,” he said. “It’s a market-based, right-wing solution, and I’m a political pragmatist.”

Burgess has also been somewhat frozen out by the ongoing integration of Business Spectator with The Australian. As subscribers to the Oz also get a Biz Spec subscription, there was seen to be little reason to employ a political commentator at Business Spectator, Burgess says. News Corp is aligning The Australian and Business Spectator more and more closely, and Burgess’ positions might have made him an uncomfortable fit with the broadsheet’s editorial line.

Asked about whether Burgess’ positions were the reasons for his redundancy this morning, Kohler dismissed the suggestion. “It’s a disservice to Rob to suggest he’s too left-wing,” Kohler told Crikey, saying Burgess’ work was widely appreciated within News Corp. “Business Spectator is being more and more closely integrated into the Australian, and there was no need for a political correspondent.”

In a farewell column posted on Business Spectator this morning, Burgess wrote an ode to quality journalism, saying it remains as relevant as ever, though responsibility for it has become dispersed:

“The price of freedom, as the old saying goes, is eternal vigilance. More than ever, that’s a job for the reader as much for the journalist.”

Burgess declined to tell Crikey where he was off to next, but he did say he was in discussions with some parties. “Hopefully I’ll be able to say something early next week,” he said.

When News Corp bought out Australian Independent Business Media in 2012, whose stable includes Business Spectator, Eureka Report and Climate Spectator, many feared this would mean for the websites’ editorial positioning, particularly Climate Spectator, which champions market-based solutions to climate change. Kohler stressed in interviews at the time that there would be no change in editorial direction, particularly at Climate Spectator. “The News Limited attitude towards climate change will not influence what we write,” he said.

Crikey understands the earn-out period for Business Spectator’s talent — including site founders Kohler, Robert Gottliebsen and Stephen Bartholomeusz — will run out in 2016, which has some News Corp staff questioning whether the websites will continue to exist when the earn-out period runs out. But Crikey understands they’re likely to stay put, as they add credibility to The Australian’s broader business offering. Several Business Spectator staffers have recently been absorbed by The Australian, including former Family Business magazine deputy editor and Biz Spec journalist Chris Kohler (son of Alan), who’s moved to the Oz to write for the Business Now blog, and former editor Jackson Hewitt, who’s running business video at The Australian.

Crikey chairman Eric Beecher is a former owner and chairman of Australian Independent Business Media, whose stable includes Business Spectator. He sold his stake to News Corp in 2012. 

Correction: An earlier version of this piece said Burgess was Business Spectator’s second most-read columnist. Australian CEO Nicholas Gray informs Crikey this is not accurate: “Business Spectator’s three most-read columnists are, in no particular order, Alan Kohler, Robert Gottliebsen and Stephen Bartholomeusz.  All three frequently appear in The Australian Business Review, part of The Australian, which has a monthly readership across print and digital of 3.2m, as well as in Business Spectator.” The piece above has been amended.

Peter Fray

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