Opposing Ron Walker at Fairfax in 2002

January 14, 2008

This Mark Westfield article in The Australian on November 9, 2002, followed Ron Walker's appointment to the Fairfax board and was headlined "Integrity stalks Fairfax".

When departing John Fairfax chairman Brian Powers was challenged by shareholder activist Stephen Mayne at this week's annual meeting over his decision to invite Ron Walker on to the board, the American described the former Liberal Party treasurer as "a man of high integrity''.

After Mayne had finished his barrage of hostile questioning, he sat down to a round of applause from the 150 or so shareholders in the Melbourne's Regent Hotel.

Despite Powers' defence of Walker, the man who persuaded the Formula One Grand Prix organisers to move the Australian leg of the event from Adelaide to Melbourne and successfully lobbied for the Commonwealth Games to take place in Melbourne in 2006 is not a popular figure in his home city.

A popular saying in the city's business and political circles while he was the Liberal Party's chief fund raiser during the Jeff Kennett years was to be "Ronned'', i.e. bulldozed into agreeing to something Walker wanted, usually money or favours for the party.

Walker's main experience with the media, particularly Fairfax's The Age, has been to sue its journalists. Now he is about to take up a position on the board, reputedly because he will add a ``Melbourne flavour'' to the board of the Sydney-based company.

Will he drop the legal actions? As a person used to getting his way, will he interfere with the editorial process when it comes to coverage of the Commonwealth Games or the Grand Prix, which still remains unpopular among residents unlucky enough to live close to the Albert Park circuit.

Old habits don't die easily. Other new appointments to the Fairfax board with Walker are Qantas chairman and Melburnian Margaret Jackson, and Woolworths chief executive Roger Corbett.

Apart from Walker's regular brushes with The Age, none has any knowledge of publishing.

Says one analyst: "At a time when the board has to take the company through the challenge of online publishing, none of the directors has media experience.''

This will be a comfort to Fairfax chief executive Fred Hilmer, who has presided over a deep slide in the group's earnings, revenues and prospects generally in his four years in the position. Hilmer stated he was not a regular reader of newspapers when he took the job and still reads only selectively.

Even his promise to lift earnings before interest and tax by 15 per cent in the first half of this financial year is hollow. It will be the first reporting period for three years that won't contain heavy losses from his brainchild, the F2 online classified and auction experiment. F2 has cost Fairfax an estimated $128.5 million since Hilmer started it at the height of the dotcom fad in 1999.

He won't have any directors making sure he doesn't make a repeat of the F2 fiasco, because they simply won't know. If a Trevor Kennedy, Sam Chisholm, Vic Carroll or Chris Anderson was on the board, Hilmer would find himself under challenge before he could embark on another harebrained scheme. In the meantime Fairfax is directionless.

Another analyst quipped: "I'm not convinced about the economy and the cycle hurting Fairfax; they're just hopeless.''

And another: "They're losing money to TV. They're being outgunned.''