Confirmation that billionaire mining boss Gina Rinehart now owns about 20% of Fairfax Media’s shares came as the media corporation announced plans to downsize its major newspapers. The moves spell out the future for Australia’s mainstream media: more corporate-friendly reports and less journalism.
Rinehart’s tilt for three positions on Fairfax’s board of directors sparked defensive outrage from executives and journalists alike, who said the company’s “editorial independence” should not be compromised.
But big structural changes announced by Fairfax on June 18, including 1900 redundancies and a merger of its Sydney and Melbourne newsrooms, show a deeper peril for Australian media.
“Overall there will be fewer stories and voices,” investigative journalist and academic Professor Wendy Bacon told Green Left Weekly. “There is a danger that content will be more clearly driven by commercial values than it is at the moment.
“No one has any doubt that Rinehart is intending to impose her political editorial agenda. Rinehart is not only extremely wealthy and conservative but she is also a climate sceptic … and far more right-wing than your average business executive.”
Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood told Fairfax staff on June 19 the company would shed almost 2000 jobs over three years to save $235 million.
Hywood also said Fairfax may move to a “digital-only model” if revenues did not rise.
About 20% of the Fairfax job cuts will be in editorial positions. One hundred and fifty jobs will go at the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times in just two or three months.
Like its rival News Limited, Fairfax has been haemorrhaging jobs for years and has battled the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA) over collective bargaining agreements. Fairfax axed about 550 jobs in 2008 and outsourced big chunks of editorial work to AAP-owned Pagemasters.
Bacon says this is inevitable because Fairfax runs as a business: “Corporate media have always been underpinned by advertising and sales — mostly advertising. So as technology changes the way advertising happens, the amount of money coming in has changed.
“So the fact that media are downsizing or closing is an old story. It was really the scale of the Fairfax announcement that was surprising.
“The company has developed its online media sites in a more commercial way — by which I mean, the content is more directly influenced by what stories will get hits and therefore attract more advertising.
“Also the journalists in the online section were less unionised than in the old newsroom and less imbued with the ideas behind editorial independence.”
Angry journalists have opposed the moves. Bacon said: “There is definitely a struggle going on inside Fairfax with lots of journalists prepared to go fully digital if necessary but still wanting to preserve some territory for independent professional journalism.”
She said there were “lots of gaps and values embedded in corporate media but at the same time, you need to see the interests of journalists and the owners separately. Even within Fairfax, some parts of the outlets are more independent than others.”
Last month, when Fairfax said it would outsource 66 subediting jobs from the Illawarra Mercury and Newcastle Herald to New Zealand, journalists staged a 36-hour wildcat strike and urged a boycott of Fairfax.
But the papers continued with content largely made up of wire copy.
“The trouble is that shareholders will support what delivers them the most money,” Bacon said.
Media power goes to those who have the wealth to buy it. Fairfax’s board has long been made up of property developers, managers, accountants and chairpersons of a raft of other corporations.
And its executives pocket huge pay packets. Crikey said directors received $4.3 million in bonus payments in 2010, with “key executives walking away with an extra $2.5 million on top of their base salaries”.
No individual journalist is free of the pressures and restrictions imposed by these powerful corporate controllers. They are workers who have to keep their jobs and livelihoods. Their editors are chosen by the people who control the company’s profits.
Even as the din over Fairfax intensified, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation made a quiet $2 billion bid to buy James Packer’s Consolidated Media Holdings, which invests in pay TV.
Bacon said News Ltd was much further down the path of media concentration and ownership than Fairfax, and the “compliant, tribal” culture at its newspapers means less stories for regional Australia and promotion of stories that “get the most quick hits”.
“Just think of the situation in Queensland where News Ltd have a clean sweep of the coast — Cairns Post, Townsville Bulletin, Courier Mail and the Gold Coast Bulletin.
“Journalism is always influenced by the political economy in which it is situated.
“There has been a strong sense that journalists at Fairfax can’t just be told what to write in the way they sometimes are at News Ltd. This is important and it is simply an application of the MEAA code of ethics.
“Bending to outside influences is unethical for journalists.
“At the same time we need to strengthen independent and community media in Australia.”