A failure of stewardship: a feckless, flailing Fairfax confounds with the latest round of savage cutbacks

True to its tin-eared modus operandi Fairfax management thought it fitting to choose World Press Freedom Day to announce the loss of 125 editorial positions from its already depleted metropolitan mastheads. After years of savage cutbacks, that’s a breathtaking 25% of its current newsroom numbers.

Announcing the cuts on World Press Freedom Day may not be as in-your-face as Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood splashing $140,000 on a new Maserati Ghibli in 2014 during tense wages negotiations and ongoing cost-cutting, but there is no question that relations between staff and Fairfax management are at an all-time low.

The decision by journalists from The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WA Today to go on strike for seven days reflects not just their anger but their lack of confidence in Fairfax’s feckless management and a genuine concern about the future of journalism in Australia.

As the journalists’ union, the MEAA, stated on behalf of its striking members: “These cuts are bad for journalism, bad for democracy and press freedom, and bad for the future of not only the Fairfax business, but for the entire industry in Australia.”

The strike period covers federal budget night, May 9, a plum event for any political, economics and finance reporter, which goes some way to revealing the extent of bitterness felt by Fairfax staff.

Fairfax journalists are red-hot angry, and they have a right to be. For the past five years of fevered “restructuring” and rolling redundancies they have worked under enormous stress, uncertainty and the vagaries of Fairfax management ineptitude. They feel strongly enough about not just their own job security but also the very future of journalism in this country to forego a week’s wages and expose themselves to penalties under illegal-strike laws. (And this goes to the heart of the point made by newly elected ACTU Secretary Sally McManus when she made what should have been the unremarkable observation recently that, “It shouldn’t be so hard for workers in our country to be able to take industrial action when they need to.”)

Hywood has made comments that suggest Fairfax will take a sanguine approach to the strike, insisting: “I absolutely respect the passion of our people. I wrote for the Financial Review for 17 years, I’ve edited the publi­cations, I’m a journalist.”

Good cop, bad cop

But another Fairfax executive who also might profess to still be a journalist, Editorial Director Sean Aylmer (whose distinguished career includes being editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and editor-in-chief of BRW), sent a very different signal on the subject of strike action.

A memo to staff in which Aylmer stressed that “we want to make the company’s position very clear” warned that the consequences of “unlawful industrial action” and “unauthorised absence” may include “disciplinary action” and “termination of employment”. Oh, Sean.

Hywood has assured staff that the latest cuts, aimed at saving $30 million annually, will be the last.

“After this year, we will be spending $100 million a year on journalism; that’s a lot of money,” Hywood told The Australian.

A lot of something, that’s for sure. It’s this kind of flim-flammery – saving $30 million to spend $100 million – that infuriates journalists at the manifestly flailing Fairfax. Rolling cutbacks since 2012 have seen some 600 editorial jobs slashed from newsrooms. The lack of a credible, cohesive or consistent strategy leaves little room for confidence in either the management or governance of Fairfax. A merry-go-round of strategies, reviews and restructures have ostensibly sought to prepare Fairfax for the age of digital media, but all that has been achieved is that a once-great media house has been depleted to a point where the viability of its flagship mastheads are now in serious doubt.

Since the late 1990s, Fairfax has been run as a management consultant’s plaything. A succession of thick and jargon-laden consultants’ reports always seem to come to the same conclusion: more cuts. While the reports piled up, nobody thought to understand how the internet would change the media industry. Early opportunities for Fairfax to buy into internet plays such as carsales.com, SEEK and realestate.com.au went begging. While Fairfax assumed that the legendary rivers of gold had dried up, in fact they were flowing into new online media channels. James Packer and the Murdochs were more attuned to this critical change in course.

A failure of stewardship

Fairfax was caught flat-footed by the rapid rise of the internet and ever since its only resort has been to cut costs. Fairfax has some of Australia’s best and brightest business and finance journalists; they will know better than most that a company that relies on cost-cutting for profitability eventually has nothing left to cut.

Fairfax management and the Fairfax board have failed miserably as stewards of one of Australia’s – one of the world’s – great publishing houses. Instead of looking to the long-term health of the company Fairfax’s management and board remain fixed on creating short-term wealth for shareholders.

“[W]hat we are doing is that we are making sure that our publications are profitable and by profitable that means sustainable. They are profitable now and they have to continue to be profitable,” Hywood told The Australian.

“You have to look into the future … If they are not profitable, they become vulnerable, seriously vulnerable.”

As if Fairfax today is not “seriously vulnerable”. It is certainly diminished.

The constant assault on the very assets that deliver value – Fairfax’s people – belies any suggestion that Fairfax is building a company for the future. The erosion of newsroom resources – reporters, photographers, sub-editors – across the Fairfax stable has left the company a shell of its former self.

Fairfax staff know better than most that there is a need for fundamental shifts in business models to transform traditional media companies into 21st century businesses. What they lament is not just that they are so little regarded, but that Fairfax has no clear direction for the future. Over the past five years of restructuring the company has been less than candid about its true intentions – if indeed it has any.

While Hywood insists that he has a plan, Fairfax’s vacillation over the future of the print editions of its flagship city mastheads, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, reveals a company in strategic disarray. Earlier this year, after years of uncertainty about the future of print, uncertainty created by Hywood himself, the Fairfax CEO announced that “[t]he model we have developed involves continuing to print our publications daily for some years yet”.

It is hard not to be cynical about this decision. A reasonable conclusion would be that retaining the print editions of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald provides Fairfax with valuable assets that can be sold. Has this been its intention all along? Does Fairfax’s future rest with its real estate site Domain and online fripperies such as the dating site RSVP? (The noise you hear in the distance may well be generations of Fairfaxes rolling in their graves.)

The fact that Fairfax now finds itself the subject of a takeover bid by private-equity investor TPG is hardly flattering. It’s the equities market equivalent of vultures circling for the kill. Neither staff nor readers would have cause to welcome a private-equity overlord. But a sale of some kind is probably in the wind.

Former Fairfax titan Robert Gottliebsen does not like what he sees. Gottliebsen was the founder of the iconic and now-defunct BRW at Fairfax, as well as a stable of magazines that included Personal Investment and Shares, also gone. Gottliebsen was also responsible for acquiring what was then Australia’s oldest business magazine, Rydges, and relaunching it as BRW’s sister magazine under the editorship of this writer. Rydges was later merged into BRW, cementing the latter’s market leadership.

Gottliebsen speculates that The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald might be sold to Melbourne and Sydney families with deep pockets.

But with no end in sight to the cost-cutting, Gottliebsen has this warning:

“[T]hat scenario may be impossible to even consider if the quality of journalism declines too far and the papers become a source of ridicule.”

 Leo D’Angelo Fisher was at Fairfax in 1986-89 and 2006-2013. He is a former editor of Rydges magazine when it was part of the BRW Group and associate editor of BRW. He has also been a columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He took a voluntary redundancy package at the end of 2013.

That cartoon: I was wrong, and so were you Bill

I was prepared to give Bill Leak the benefit of the doubt over his infamous cartoon in The Australian in which he portrayed an Aboriginal child being handed back by an Aboriginal policeman to an apparently drunk father, holding a can of VB, who cannot remember his son’s name.

Policeman: “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.”

Father: “Yeah, righto, what’s his name then?”

My instinctive reaction was to recoil at Leak being branded a racist. Not because I know Leak (I do not) or have any personal knowledge of whether he is a racist or not, but because it is such a big accusation to level at anyone. ‘Surely an editorial cartoonist should be able to make his statement without being labelled a racist’, was the gist of my initial response.

My first reaction was not to the cartoon itself. But it should have been, particularly coming as it did so soon after the ABC’s revelations about the unpardonable treatment of Aboriginal youths in Darwin’s Don Dale detention centre and the subsequent calling of the Royal Commission.

I should have looked at that cartoon. I should have thought not “freedom of speech” but at how others would see it, particularly members of the indigenous community, and especially loving Aboriginal dads and their kids.

The one good to come out of the Leak cartoon controversy was the spontaneous and emotionally charged #IndigenousDads campaign on Twitter. And it was a great good. The outpouring of love, tributes, defiance and anger at being so unfairly – and horribly – stereotyped by Leak’s cartoon was and continues to be social media at its best. Photos of dads and their kids, posted by proud and loving fathers and children alike, were just too beautiful for my inadequate words.

In defence of his cartoon Leak insisted that it spoke the “truth” about violence and abuse in indigenous communities. But whatever truth Leak may have felt compelled to highlight, the timing of the cartoon was always going to overshadow his message, such as it was.

Coming as it did in the wake of the Don Dale scandal, it is hard not to see – immediately or, as in my case, on reflection – that the cartoon might as well have been a submission to the Royal Commission that the indigenous communities have only themselves to blame.

Even if the cartoon was conceived with the best intentions, it is yet another example of European smugness, more of that “this is for your own good” crap which has worked so well in the past.

#IndigenousDads

It is not good enough to protest that the cartoon simply shined a light on the violence and abuse in indigenous communities. Indigenous leaders know about those problems; they do not need reminding by The Australian. And those failings certainly should not be portrayed as if they are the sum total of Aboriginal Australia, to be represented in culturally loaded images and attitudes as old as European Australian itself.

#IndigenousDads was a timely and powerful reminder that non-indigenous Australians should look beyond discredited stereotypes in how we continue to see Aborigines. The fact that cartoons like Leak’s still appear reinforces the sad reality that most Australians do not know, do not see, do not socialise with Aboriginal Australians. If more non-indigenous Australians had blackfellas as neighbours, we might think it less acceptable that they be portrayed as they were in Leak’s cartoon.

Leak’s response to the criticism was to present a second version of the cartoon in which a perplexed and defeated Leak is being handed over by the same Aboriginal policeman to an enraged trendoid wearing a Twitter t-shirt and carrying a club and a noose.

“This bloke’s been telling the truth and he thinks it’s funny,” the policeman says.

“Let me at ‘im,” the one-man lynch mob yells.

I can see that Leak’s supporters might have been sympathetic to this portrayal, but in many respects I thought it was even more offensive than the first. It shows that there was no reflection on Leak’s part, nor any appreciation of how others might have seen his original cartoon. Leak’s portrayal of himself as the misunderstood victim makes a mockery of the systemic disadvantage and oppression of so many indigenous Australians over generations. Frankly, if Leak felt compelled to keep digging with a follow-up cartoon, you’d think it would be to defiantly present his middle finger than to bleat “poor me”.

The fact that Leak obviously concludes that the lesson to be taken from this experience is that it’s all about him reveals, if nothing else, a breathtaking lack of empathy and, worryingly for an editorial cartoonist, under-appreciation of irony.

‘Confronting and insightful’, tin-eared or just plain racist?

I remain an admirer of Bill Leak as one of our finest cartoonists. But what are we to make of this latest upset? Did the controversial cartoon reveal Leak’s inner racist, or as his critics insist yet again confirm his overt racism? His cartoon certainly provided succour to racists.

Right or wrong, editorial cartoonists tend not to back down. By the time they sign that cartoon they are prepared to defend it come hell or high Twitter. Perhaps it is their strength of conviction that gives them the daring to continually challenge readers and those they satire. To start second-guessing themselves would make their job almost impossible.

If Leak was simply too tin-eared and too close to his cartoon to understand the true dimensions of his creation, his editor had no such excuse.

In its response to the furore, The Australian issued this statement: “Bill Leak’s confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do.”

Not untrue of itself, but in this instance we can dismiss it for the blah that it is.

What Leak’s editor should have said when the cartoon was presented was: “Bill, I get what you’re saying, but there are messages here I don’t think you intend or appreciate.”

And when Leak inevitably would have protested that The Australian could take it or leave it, the editor should have responded: “Well, Bill, we’ll leave it then.”

You were wrong on this one, Bill, and it’s not too late to admit it. I think your cartoon mentioned something about personal responsibility.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher