Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Page One

Yesterday, Wednesday was first Page One in the Canberra Times. Now I have had page one's before, quite a few times for the Sydney Morning Herald, with my name and colour photo in the puff box at the top as if that would sell a paper, and that was an awesome experience too, especially when I saw myself on the two copies I picked up to buy at the Waringah Mall newsagent. (I bought five, and wondered whether the woman serving would recognise me - she didn't.) But Page One of the Canberra Times, when it is my real job - not just filling in... that means something.

And I haven't even properly started work there yet. The removal truck arrives at our Sydney home at 7.00am tomorrow, and we will be set up in our new Canberra home by the base of Mount Ainslie by the end of the day.

I formally start at the Canberra Times next week.

The piece I wrote for tomorrow's CT is below the fold. It is about the media law changes - again, and how they'll destroy the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

When mid- yesterday the House of Representatives voted 77 to 55 to pass the government’s new media bills it signed the death warrant for two of Australia’s three most important journalistic institutions.

They are the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. The third is the ABC. It can’t be killed and it can’t be neutered, despite what you’ve heard. It has too much public support.

But public support won’t save either of Australia’s two great newspapers.

The only votes that will count are the votes of the directors of John Fairfax Holdings. Under Australian corporate law they are duty bound to vote in the financial interest of Fairfax shareholders, rather than in the broader interests of Age and Herald readers, or the broader health of Australia’s democracy.

All over Sydney investment banks are putting together studies showing that Fairfax shares would be worth more if the company was broken up, amalgamated with a competitor or sold to a foreign investment fund that was prepared to break up or merge the company.

Late yesterday Fairfax shared were worth $4.73. There’s talk that a foreign investment house made free to bid for the company by yesterday’s House of Representatives vote might offer $6.00 dollars a share.

If that happens, and if there are no even higher bids the Fairfax directors might be legally required to recommend that their shareholders accept.

It has happened before. In the 1980’s the Herald and Weekly Times of Melbourne published the respected Herald and the Sun News-Pictorial and through affiliates the Adelaide Advertiser and the Brisbane Courier Mail. Its management and its readers vehemently resisted the idea of a takeover by Rupert Murdoch, talking of the need for continued independent reporting, free from overtly commercial considerations.

But Rupert Murdoch offered so much money per share that the company’s directors had to accept. Adelaide and Brisbane became one-newspaper towns and the Courier Mail, Courier Mail, and Herald Sun found themselves owned by a political lobbyist whose empire included a government-regulated airline business.

The forces unleashed by yesterday’s House of Representatives vote are likely to force Australia’s two greatest newspapers into the arms of a lobbyist whose empire includes a government-regulated television network and a government-regulated gambling empire.

Or perhaps into the arms of a foreign equity fund that wants to slash costs. The interests of the papers’ readers and the interests of Australians who value independent reporting won’t come into it.