Mon, Aug 06, 2018 - Page 8 News List

From butlers and booze-ups to a humiliating end

Back in the day, Fairfax had rivers of cash that funded extravagant demonstrations of hubris, but now the great newspaper company is to disappear

By David Marr  /  The Guardian

People last month walk past the offices of Fairfax Media’s Age newspaper in Melbourne. Publisher Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment announced plans to merge, creating an integrated Australian media giant across television, online video streaming, print, and digital.

Photo: AFP

There was so much money. Fairfax had butlers and dining rooms and fleets of cars. Big houses in the best suburbs of Canberra housed journalists sent south to cover national affairs. London and New York had big offices at big addresses with yet more houses and cars.

A man in livery stood in the foyer of the Fairfax headquarters in Ultimo, Sydney and tugged his forelock — it’s the only time I’ve seen it happen in my life — when members of “the family” took the lift to the executive floor where the walls were hung with superb modern Australian paintings.

So much money and so much bullshit about the long tradition of glorious Fairfax journalism. The Sydney Morning Herald was a cautious Tory paper blind for so long to the squalor of commercial and political life in its city. The thing was: for all its faults the SMH was so much better than its competitors, the Packer rags: the Telegraph in the morning and the Mirror at night.

MARKET PLACE

And the Herald had what no competitor could match: the classified ads.

The paper was a market place. If you were buying a house or needed a job, you bought the Herald. No one was truly dead for a century in Sydney unless the Herald’s death notices — for a small fee — confirmed you were.

Protecting that market set the tone of the paper. An appetite for tabloid scandal was indulged (profitably) in the afternoon Sun, but the ruling notion of the empire was that Herald readers were respectable folk — they must not be shocked.

Old Sir Warwick, an elegant ghost in the corridors by the time I turned up at Ultimo in the 1970s, patrolled the boundaries of language with particular vigor. No swearing. Even asterisks were insufficient to protect his readers’ sensibilities. For years he forbade his papers using the new fangled “Ms.”

The papers were decent, even worthy in a way that’s too easy to mock.

But they did not have a history of standing above the fray with Olympian detachment. They were on the side of money, business and (most of the time) the Liberal Party. One shameful example: the Fairfax papers joined the Tory pack howling for John Kerr to sack Gough Whitlam.

But a big shift was already underway in the empire’s grey tower in Ultimo. Old Warwick was fading out. Surrounding his heir James was a new generation of executives with big ambitions for Fairfax journalism.

The Herald was revamped. The brakes were taken off. Talented editors exiled for petty crimes against the family were brought back. Little old ladies faded as the core customers of the papers. They were being published from this point for anyone — even Labor voters — who had some money, education and curiosity about the world.

With new masters at the sluice gates, the rivers of cash from classified advertising were diverted into journalism — an odd idea, but it worked. And as the papers were transformed, the rivers of gold grew fatter still. Shares in John Fairfax and Sons were the bluest of blue chip.

RADICAL TRANSFORMATION

Early in this revolution, Fairfax began a radical (by Australian standards) weekly with high-end muck racking ambitions called The National Times. Its godfather and (briefly) editor Evan Whitton died the other day at the age of 90 spared the humiliations of this week and honored for the crusading spirit he brought to his paper. A little rubbed off on all the Fairfax mastheads.

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