1942 - | Publisher
John B Fairfax was one of the few people to emerge with any credit from his cousin Warwick’s disastrous privatisation of Fairfax in 1987 and its painful aftermath. When the takeover dissolved under crippling debt, John B Fairfax emerged with the company’s rural and regional newspaper for a $20 million investment. He turned Rural Press into a $1 billion empire with shrewd strategies and prudent cost cutting while the Fairfax company floundered through wavering leadership and digital disruption. He received an Order of Australia for services to rural journalism.
In September 1987 John Fairfax stood before a group of staff of the family company and revealed his distress at the takeover of the company by young Warwick Fairfax, his second cousin. Young Warwick’s deeply flawed financials provoked a carve up of its assets and forced the remnants of the company into bankruptcy.
Not uncharacteristically in this time of personal and business crisis, John kept a commitment to speak at a celebratory dinner for 25-year and 35-year employees of the company. “From your point of view you must now wonder what on earth is happening. I am just as shocked - totally shattered,” he confessed.
Out of the wreckage, John and family members including brother Tim rescued Rural Press - the chain of rural and regional titles - an interest in the Hannan family’s printing operations and their remarkably prosperous Sydney eastern suburbs newspapers and some other smaller assets. But connections were severed with The Sydney Morning Herald, established five generations before by his great-great grandfather, the original John. And so too, were ties with The Canberra Times where he had invested the majority of his hands-on publishing life.
The misery provoked by the takeover was not equally shared. The employees and general shareholders reaped a bonanza from the overpriced bid by Young Warwick and it remains corporate myth that for 20 years after the corks still popped in the clubs where retired employees gathered around Lake Macquarie.
Chairman of the company and its biggest family shareholder James Fairfax, while surprised and angered by the takeover, was hugely relieved to farewell the stress and pressure that came with being at the sharp end of Fairfax’s influential and combative journalism.
John Fairfax and his father Sir Vincent Fairfax, now aged and ill, strongly opposed the takeover despite its financial advantages for them. They knew it would shatter the company, undermining its independence and the financial strength that underpinned that independence.
Their branch of the family, although smaller shareholders, felt more strongly about maintaining the historic joint family entity and the consequent independence of the Fairfax titles.
The health and integrity of The Sydney Morning Herald was the life-long concern of Sir Vincent. In his latter years as he saw a family schism approach, it became close to an obsession. John inherited this intense concern for family reputation and obligation – a sense of unavoidable, life-long family duty. He has written of how he returned to Sydney in 1967, after working as a journalist in London, Birmingham and New York, knowing that his privileges were great but personal freedom would once again be curtailed. “I had once again to be a Fairfax,” he wrote.
Not long after John re-joined the family company, Sir Warwick Fairfax became not only chairman but also “a committee of one” of the board - in effect executive chairman.
Sir Warwick, wilful, highly emotional and intellectually supremely confident, had previously been more or less managed by his canny publisher Rupert Henderson, who had masterminded the company’s growth in assets and influence.
Sir Warwick believed that the Fairfax papers should speak with one voice, the lead should be taken from the Herald and the Herald’s views should be his. Henderson, retired as chief executive but still on the board, often relied on Vincent and John as well as Sir Warwick’s first-born son, James, to help restrain those authoritarian instincts.
In 1976, father and son, uneasy at Sir Warwick’s wilful ways, joined a Henderson-inspired coup that supplanted Warwick as chairman of the company with James, who shared the family obligation to preserve and protect the company and took the post despite real misgivings.
This united family front was the moving force on the board in modernising the company and changing its approach to its responsibilities. Sir Warwick and his wife, Mary, were deeply unhappy about these events, and Young Warwick was raised in this angry environment.
By the time of the 1987 takeover, diversity in reporting, commentary and opinion in the various arms of the Fairfax publishing house was the established principle.
This Fairfax precedent made it a publisher with no contemporary counterpart in English language publishing. The family-owned Washington Post, with its campaigning journalism, invested preeminent authority in its editor, free of routine proprietorial intervention, but it was a single title adventure. The New York Times was something similar, though it owned other titles.
But no group of highly influential papers, commanding its market reach, had established diversity as a principle in their titles, and publicly declared that no collection of titles as powerful as Fairfax should be a single voice: a policy in distinct contrast to Australia’s other family dominated media groups - then as now - grindingly uniform in opinion and alert to be in tune with the owner.
Internal competition at Fairfax, by contrast, was fierce and that competition was a spur to its journalism; nowhere more apparent than in the competition between the Herald and The Age, and their deeply competitive editors Creighton Burns and Chris Anderson. These papers, as company policy, maintained separate, competitive staff in Canberra, where The Financial Review was another separate, distinctive voice and The Canberra Times was another.
The commitment to competitive reporting, commentary and opinion is the great, shared achievement which alone might warrant this award. There are still within Fairfax fine reporters at all its papers making a difference, though, as always, their mission is prompted by a solid lump of self-imposed duty. That sense of duty, is a surviving thread of the culture endowed by John B.Fairfax and the family.
There were more important achievements of John’s publishing life, notably the 20 years he chaired Rural Press and shepherded it through management changes and significant growth in size and profitability building it into a $20 billion publishing empire – and regaining control of The Canberra Times.
In 2007, feeling Rural Press’s organic growth must inevitably end and apprehensive of the global trends in digital competition, a “friendly merger” was organised between Rural Press and the rump of the old Fairfax, now Fairfax Media, which owned the Herald, The Age, the Financial Review and the dailies in Wollongong and Newcastle.
The “friendly” nature of the deal was dead and buried by 2009 when John and his son Nicholas denounced the chairman of the company, Melbourne wheeler and dealer Ron Walker. Their anger at the way they had been isolated on the board despite their shareholding - the single largest in the company - and how decisions were made by Walker without the knowledge of the full board, provoked the irreparable breach.
Through the adroit operations of Walker, the merger proved to be a takeover. Two years later the family walked entirely from Fairfax. This time despite a huge loss, the abiding emotion was not grief but relief.
Max Suich started as a cadet journalist at Fairfax in 1958 and was a correspondent, editor and editor in chief of the Sydney papers before departing the company as chief editorial executive in 1987. With his wife, Jennie, he edited and published The Independent Monthly in partnership with John B. Fairfax from 1989 to 1996. In recent years he has contributed to the Financial Review and The Australian.
John B. Fairfax in 1992, at the SMH Pitt St offices. Courtesy of Fairfax
Courtesy of Fairfax
John B. Fairfax with Rural Press CEO Brian McCarthy. Courtesy of Fairfax
John B. Fairfax and Ron Walker at the announcement of the merger between Rural Press and Fairfax. Courtesy of Fairfax
John B.Fairfax: Old Fashioned Media Proprietor, The Age, 9 December 2006
Fall of the House of Fairfax, Australian Financial Review, 23 September 2013