The Fairfax founders are rolling in their graves, and Kerry Packer might just rise up from his for this spectacle.
And the very much alive Don Burke is wishing this all happened last year.
Though it was announced as a “merger”, the truth is glaring out at us in the name of the proposed new company: Nine. The flashy entertainer is to swallow Australia’s oldest newspaper publisher, to the despair of those who still value objectivity in their journalism and facts over fluff.
When I heard the news this morning, there was a dried-up part of me that wasn’t surprised. After all, I’ve lived on with no apparent injury after The National Times closed, afternoon papers vanished and Nine’s own excellent Sunday program was axed (you’ll need to be of a certain vintage to remember those).
Journalists can’t afford to be sentimental. They need to get on and find the next gig.
But as it sank in, I started to feel sad, worried and pretty bloody angry that our media laws are so lax that this merger can even happen.
Rather than create something stronger, as the corporate touts would have you believe, it will create a conglomerate to slice and dice journalism and journalists every which way, weakening everything and adding nothing.
Not so long ago – 1987 to be exact – new cross-media-ownership laws meant that Fairfax had to choose between newspapers and TV. Bless their journalism-loving hearts (and their love of the raging revenue stream from the classifieds), they picked papers and sold off Seven to Christopher Skase.
Now, Fairfax itself is getting picked off by TV. (By the way, should Seven have emerged the victorious suitor, only the names of the shows in this piece would have changed).
Yes, I know Fairfax has changed, too. Hard to imagine it now, but The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald used to be proud rivals … competition that made for grand journalism, each making the other better. In the past decades, hundreds of great journalists have been farewelled from those newsrooms in round after round of redundancies.
But the fact is, Fairfax is still home to journalists who rightly believe their job is to serve their readers by reporting the facts without fear or favour.
What will happen to the journalists who have for years put the blowtorch to the belly of the Nine beast, decrying the Daddy Warbucks approach to landing stories that 60 Minutes made into an art form, mocking the shlock consumer advocacy of A Current Affair, lampooning the largesse of the on-air presenter packages?
If those journos manage to keep their jobs after the merger – and given the $50 million in “cost synergies” the merger maestros are touting, that’s a boldface “if” – are they expected to self-lobotomise and start spruiking the corporate line?
(And yes, those boardroom boofheads really are calling them “cost synergies” … and that is how you will report it from now on, thank you.)
And all this when the federal government is again looming over our ABC with the scythe. I’m presuming there will be no more knockout investigative co-productions between Four Corners and Fairfax journalists either. Here’s hoping the public broadcaster can find the budget to employ them.
How, once they are gulped inside the “We are the one” machine of Nine, do The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald figure they can keep their promise to readers?
The vow they make to readers is there below the famous mastheads: “Independent. Always.” There’s simply no way they will be able to uphold that pledge.
Jane Nicholls has 35 years’ experience in Australian journalism. She is a former editor of WHO and editor-at-large of People in the US, was chief executive of online startup The Global Mail and is now a freelance journalist and editor for a variety of publications and corporate clients. Long ago, she was deputy editor of Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine and worked for Harper’s Bazaar when that magazine was part of the Fairfax stable.