Within hours of outgoing CEO Fred Hilmer standing down at 10am this morning, Chairman Ron Walker and new CEO David Kirk have given the strongest indication yet of a change of direction for the publishing giant after both hinted strongly at today's AGM that Fairfax is planning something big on the internet.
About 60 journalists in white "Save Fairfax.com.au" T-shirts protested outside today's meeting, including influential left-leaning SMH scribe and former Media Watch presenter David Marr. After the meeting started there was some heckling by staff, but the share options for David Kirk and the remuneration report were approved with more than 90 per cent of the vote. The meeting also seemed unconcerned over Fred Hilmer's $4.5 million parting gift.
Stephen Mayne lost his bid to get onto the Fairfax board, polling a disappointing 7.75% of the vote (he averages 18%), following a blackout at today's Fairfax AGM in Sydney. Just when the AGM was getting interesting, with Stephen Mayne's election to the board about to be decided, out went the power at the Sheraton on the Park in the Sydney CBD. That meant the election of directors had to be conducted in the semi-gloom, illuminated by a few safety lights and Chairman Ron Walker's large torch.
There was a massive charm offensive from Ron Walker on shareholder activist Jack Tilburn, who he kept calling "my good friend" – an interesting contrast to his attempts to cut off Mayne and accuse him of "self-aggrandisement" in standing for the board.
Mayne asked Walker a series of questions about his conflicts of interest, including a glowing review from James Packer who said his appointment as chairman was an "inspired choice," in response to which Walker taked about his high regard for the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and the Packers.
Walker also categorically ruled out plans to appoint Melbourne shock-jock Neil Mitchell as editor of The Age. And under questioning he said he had absolutely no involvement with the Liberal Party in a public, official or private capacity. Further Fairfax story in Crikey the following Monday
By Stephen Mayne, twice defeated Fairfax board candidate
Never before in the history of Australian company AGMs has a chairman so grovelled to some shareholders while being downright belligerent to others.
So it was with Fairfax chairman Ron Walker on Friday in Sydney as he successfully neutralised Jack Tilburn by constantly sucking up to the nutter. Big Ron opened the meeting by patting himself on the back for his role alongside Frank Lowy on the Football Federation of Australia board and then referred to "my friend Jack Tilburn".
When Crazy Jack got to the microphone as the sixth speaker, Walker declared "Jack, welcome once again, it is nice to see you here."
Jack was typically incoherent but less abusive than usual and Walker peppered his exchanges with lines such as "thank you Jack, coming from you", "Jack, thank you for that epistle, that was very good of you" and "here, here and we do everything we can to achieve that for you, Jack."
Even former Keating Government minister Chris Schacht was praised by Walker with lines such as "your oratory skills are legendary" and "you are talking great sense." But when it came to Crikey, Walker was very rude, such that The Australian referred to him as being "clearly exasperated" when dealing with my questions about his Liberal Party connections and long-standing association with the Packers.
After one early question Walker demanded that I sit down and then he shut me down after just three general questions because he wasn't going to tolerate any "self-aggrandisement" that might affect the contested board election.
There were constant interruptions while I was speaking, and when it came to the last item of business, David Kirk's incentive package, Walker attempted to ban me from speaking altogether, only relenting when other shareholders yelled out "let him speak." This was the first time in more than 200 AGMs that a chairman has attempted to shut me down before uttering a single word on an item of business.
There were plenty of laughs when I said I wanted to speak in favour of Kirk's incentive package because, whilst the disclosure wasn't great, the quantum of his pay packet is modest when compared with other media companies.
All up, it was a very ordinary performance from Fairfax's new chairman, who couldn't even get the basics rights. Burns Philp was Burns Phillip and Ernst & Young was Earnest & Young.
As for the conduct of the elections, on some resolutions Ron had already said "all those in favour, against, carried," before some shareholders had a chance to raise their yellow card to lodge a protest. And while no-one actually called for the meeting to be adjourned during the 30-minute power blackout, Ron soldiered on in the dark such that it was very hard to hear the candidate speeches which all had to be delivered without notes. It was a complete farce.
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