The Fairfax Charter of Independence has gone unsigned since at least 2006, when billionaire businessman and senior Liberal Party figure Ron Walker refused to sign it, it can be revealed.
As previously reported by The Klaxon, Nine Entertainment never signed the storied Independence Charter when it took over the Fairfax Media newspapers in 2018, despite leading the public to believe it had.
Those explosive revelations, in late 2020, caused a publicity headache for Nine – now Australia’s biggest locally-owned media company – yet it has steadfastly refused to sign the one-page document.
Nine is chaired by senior Liberal Party figure and former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello.
Since the 2018 takeover, Nine has faced ongoing accusations of pushing a pro-Coalition bias in the former Fairfax papers, which include The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age.
Liberal Party figure and former Fairfax chair, Ron Walker.
Earlier this month it emerged that Nine Entertainment had “donated” $27,500 to the federal Liberal Party in 2020. In 2019 it was revealed that Nine had held a $10,000-a-head Liberal Party fundraiser where corporates could pay to dine with Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Nine Entertainment has come under fire again today, with allegations The Sydney Morning Herald has misrepresented a major train outage, falsely claiming that drivers were on strike.
It can now be revealed that the storied Fairfax Independence Charter has actually gone unsigned for over 15 years.
Veteran investigative journalist Bill Birnbauer, a former news editor and chief-of-staff of The Age, said Walker, since deceased, had refused to sign the document over 15 years ago.
“When I was on the independence committee, the Fairfax chairman, Ron Walker, in 2006 also refused to sign the charter,” Birnbauer said.
“When I was on the independence committee, the Fairfax chairman, Ron Walker, in 2006 also refused to sign the charter” — Bill Birnbauer
“Walker simply resorted to ‘…our journalists are our most treasured asset and I respect their total independence. Therefore, I do not see any necessity in signing a formal document to this effect’,” Birnbauer said.
Birnbauer was a member of The Age’s Independence Committee at the time.
He held numerous positions at the The Age, including night editor and chief-of-staff.
Shortly after Walker began as Fairfax chair in 2005, Birnbauer, on behalf of the Independence Committee, authored a submission to the then Howard Coalition Government.
The Coalition was pushing to water-down media ownership laws and the Independence Committee was heavily opposed to the prospect – warning it would lead to fewer voices and seriously undermine media quality in Australia.
The Klaxon’s expose in November 2020.
“The Age Independence Charter…was conceived in 1988 as part of a campaign to prevent British press tycoon Robert Maxwell from taking over the newspaper,” Birnbauer wrote in the government submission.
“The board of Fairfax including a former chairman, Sir Zelman Cowen, signed a charter of editorial independence under which they agreed that full editorial control of the newspaper was vested in the editors,” Birnbauer wrote.
“The board of Fairfax including a former chairman, Sir Zelman Cowen, signed a charter of editorial independence” — Bill Birnbauer
“Over many years directors, senior managers, editors and staff have upheld the principles set out in the charter.
“The independence committee recently asked the current chairman, Ron Walker, to seek the board’s recommitment to the charter, and is awaiting a response,” Birnbauer wrote.
The former Fairfax Charter of Editorial Independence. Source: Supplied
It can now be revealed that Walker gave a response in 2006 – and it was no.
Birnbauer says that after Walker said he would not sign the charter, Birnbauer wrote to him, on behalf of The Age Independence Committee, pressing the importance of Walker signing the document.
Birnbauer says “about a month later” Walker responded.
“I have given an undertaking to Editors and staff and demonstrated publicly my respect and their freedom to carry out their duties without intervention,” Walker told him.
“Therefore I will not reconsider my position.”
Walker, who in 2016 was estimated to have a net financial worth of $978 million, was a very senior Liberal Party figure and had once been the Liberal Party’s federal treasurer.
He was also a key player in the development of Melbourne’s Crown Casino, which in recent years has been marred by rolling scandals.
Walker was chair of Fairfax from 2005 until 2009, when he lost the support of then substantial owners the Fairfax family in an ugly clash.
John B Fairfax and Nicholas Fairfax released a statement at the time saying that they considered, regarding Walker, “inadequate attention has been paid to matters of corporate governance”.
Walker died in 2018.
Whether or not Nine Entertainment would “sign” the Independence Charter was a major issue when its takeover of Fairfax Media was announced.
Nine’s main focus has been tabloid television, including current affairs programs that are regularly called out for breaching ethical – and some times legal – standards.
As revealed by The Klaxon, Nine fudged the issue, leading the public to believe it had signed the charter.
In fact, the Nine board had “endorsed” the charter – but it hadn’t actually signed it.
The Klaxon made the connection after we discovered Nine’s A Current Affair had paid for controversial Senator Pauline Hanson to visit Uluru, where she climbed the sacred site – along with a Nine film crew – against the wishes of Traditional Owners.
Revelations that Nine orchestrated the Hanson-Uluru stunt shone the spotlight on the alleged “independence” of its newspapers. Source: The Klaxon
The revelations that Nine had orchestrated the stunt became a major national story, however neither The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald reported it.
Whether or not the charter is signed matters.
That’s because without the chairman and board signing it, it’s essentially meaningless.
Nine’s ongoing refusal to sign the charter strongly suggests it sees commercial disadvantages in doing so.
Nine, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have faced significant backlash over the 2020 independence charter revelations, and many long-time readers said they had cancelled subscriptions.
Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser join forces in 1991 in support of The Age’s charter of independence. Source: Supplied.
Nine Entertainment is a listed company and its directors and senior executives are legally bound to act in the best interests of shareholders.
There are clear costs to Nine not simply signing the document – including ongoing and significant reputation damage.
However if the document were signed, Nine’s board and executives could be exposed to legal action if they then failed to follow it.
It appears that Nine’s board and executive consider the risks and financial costs of signing the charter – if they then fail to abide by it – outweighs all of the costs of not doing so.
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