Fairfax newspapers

The recent news that the Fairfax name will disappear after the proposed merger with Nine has sent shockwaves through newspaper readers of Sydney and Melbourne. For more than 170 years, the Fairfax name has been attached to a range of important, agenda-setting papers.

However, the family behind the name is less well known. Up until Lady Mary married Sir Warwick in 1959, all of the Fairfaxes — a wealthy, upper middle-class WASP dynasty — were obsessed with staying out of the spotlight. It was a family legend that the name only appeared in the newspaper in the “hatched, matched and dispatched” columns. Like the other great media family, the Murdochs, the Fairfaxes exercised their power behind the scenes, escaping public scrutiny.  

Despite this, Fairfax Media did employ a full-time archivist, and in 2009, the entire business archive, covering the activities of the organisation and its employees, from the 1840s to the 1990s, was donated to the NSW State Library. According to the library, it is the most significant and comprehensive media business archive in the country.

On August 10, academic Dr Margaret Van Heekeren addressed it in a fascinating lecture at the State Library. She quoted from a lecture given by one the greatest editors of the Sydney Morning Herald, John Douglas Pringle, entitled “Newspapers and Intellectuals”. Although he was speaking in 1957, if you substitute “elites” for “intellectuals” you can see that his words have a prophetic irony, she said.

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Pringle said that, “by and large, we believe that democracy means government by the people and that if the majority want peace, pensions or ten o’clock closing, then they should get peace, pensions and ten o’clock closing”.

But, as intellectuals, we often take quite a different view. We believe that where matters of culture, education or entertainment are concerned we know best. We claim the right to dictate what kind of broadcasting, television or newspapers people should have. If they want something else, so much the worse for them. We are educated and they are not.

It’s not hard to see in this statement the roots of the current debate about the polarisation of the media. Post-Trump and Brexit, analysing the ignorance of the voters has been a common theme — did they wilfully vote against their own interests or was it just plain stupidity? In US sociologist Joan Williams’ 2017 book, White Working Class, she explores why populist movements around the world have recently gained traction among the working class. So much of the media analysis of this is misguided, she writes, because it is rooted in “class cluelessness”.

Pringle preceded Trump by decades, but his concerns are timely. What is the most effective way of communicating with and educating media consumers, in particular about issues like climate change and immigration? How do we change people’s minds?

Elsewhere, the archive yielded more insights into the Fairfaxes’ political leanings, Van Heekeren said. Although the family was usually seen as being pro-capitalism and in favour of conservative governments, documents show that their actions were not necessarily driven by an inherent conservative philosophy.

In 1952, Warwick Fairfax (later Sir Warwick) wrote to Pringle on his commencement as editor:

You will find our political policy entirely independent of party ties. Though strongly anti-socialist we have often been critical enough of the opposing side to bring down upon us their extreme hostility. What is more important is the viewpoint behind it which shall be non-materialist and based on idealism.

For example, in the months leading up to the 1943 election Fairfax wrote a series of articles under a pseudonym, arguing for governments that were not framed by vested interests but rather, by strong ideologies. The conservative parties were, according to him, too beholden to commercial interests.

“His dislike of Labor stemmed from the fact, he argued, that it had not developed out of an intellectual tradition but out of a materialist position that prioritised wages and working conditions over everything else,” Van Heekeren said.  

As a company, the Fairfax name will soon disappear, to be replaced by Nine. But the company has bequeathed a valuable resource to the NSW State Library. In the words of Van Heekeren, it contains a “veritable wealth of gold … for not only Australian media history but also Australian social, political and intellectual history”.