Issue 3, Semester 2
By Duncan Willis
Last week it was announced that Fairfax Media, owner of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the The Financial Review, would merge with the Channel 9 entertainment group. It was hardly a surprise that somebody would seek to take over Fairfax.; Multiple bidders had made plays for Fairfax last year, attracted mainly to the property listing platform Domain, one of the few Fairfax ventures that still turns a profit.
When the ‘2 out of 3’ rule was scrapped last year, permitting one media owner to simultaneously control a TV station, a radio and a newspaper, it was inevitable that TV stations would seek to take over newspaper and radio outlets. Channel 9, having already collaborated with Fairfax in a joint venture on Stan, was the obvious candidate to go for Fairfax. This was also due to the fact that Channel 10 has other problems and nobody would want to touch Channel 7 with a ten foot pole after the Tim Woerner scandal.
Nevertheless, the merger prompted fierce reactions, decrying the effect the takeover would have on the quality of journalism. Paul Keating, demonstrating that he’s still got it, slammed the takeover, calling it a ‘great pity’, as Channel 9 had for 40 years demonstrated the ‘ethics of an alley cat’.
Culturally, Channel 9 and Fairfax couldn’t be more different. Channel 9 hasn’t shown much interest in maintaining the quality of the Fairfax mastheads: the main targets for their takeover were Stan and Domain. On the other hand the Fairfax papers boast some of the best journalists in the country. The Illawarra Mercury broke news of institutionalised sex abuse almost 20 years before the Royal Commission was announced. Adele Ferguson was responsible for breaking multiple underpayment scandals, and her reporting on bank scandals led to the Hayne Royal Commission. Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie are two of the greatest investigative journalists in the world. They exposed, among others, the UnaOil scandal, which exposed a global ‘consulting’ firm as little more than an international bagman for companies seeking to do business across the Middle East. Baker and McKenzie are feared by almost all. When Victorian Liberal Party members were soliciting donations from alleged mafioso Tony Madafferi for Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, they emphasised the importance of being covert so as to ensure that Baker and McKenzie didn’t find out. Not that it mattered. The Age found out about it anyway. Channel 9 has produced some decent journalists, such as Laurie Oakes and his replacement Chris Uhlmann. Yet their journalists are more likely, in between episodes of Australia’s Got the Voice Factor, to be chasing dodgy tradies or organising international child-snatching operations than they are exposing corruption in our most important institutions.
The journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, called for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to block the merger in the interests of media diversity. The ACCC has begun investigating whether the merger would adversely affect competition. However, it is difficult to see the ACCC preventing the merger. In the scheme of things, this is a merger between two small players who will ultimately be crushed, like everybody else, by Facebook and Google. This merger will probably aid competition by allowing both 9 and Fairfax to stand up to the tech giants for longer than they ordinarily would. The quality of journalism will be affected, but that is more due to the fact that good news simply isn’t profitable anymore.
For me, the announcement of the merger was saddening. I’ve read The Age almost everyday since I was 8. Even now that I’ve moved out, I still go back to my parents’ house a couple of times a week to steal a hard copy off the kitchen table. I’ve seen the quality of the papers steadily decline as Fairfax halved their editorial staff over the last decade. I’ve seen the disappearance of media outlets such as MX (leaving De Minimis as the only free newspaper of any quality). To me this merger highlighted the inevitable: that most quality news outlets will be dead within our lifetime. In this merger, Channel 9 threw the Fairfax papers a temporary lifetime, keeping them in existence but ensuring the decline of the very quality reporting which made them worth reading in the first place.
Duncan Willis is a third year JD student and the editor-in-chief of De Minimis. This article is written in his personal capacity.