The distance between the beginning, with John Fairfax, and the end, with young Warwick—the man who couldn’t wait—was two months short of 150 years, five generations and a temperamental gulf the size of Carpentaria.
When he bought the 10-year-old Sydney Herald (with the gregarious Charles Kemp) from Frederick Stokes in 1841, John Fairfax (1805–77) believed ‘nothing but religion could possibly make me happy’.
Faith did not displace his worldly focus. Finding no fault with the existing editorial ideology (Alexander Pope’s ‘In moderation placing all my glory, While Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory’), Fairfax also continued the strategy of reduced subscription rates to increase circulation and revenue and concentrated on factual accuracy, believing truth induced a reader’s trust. He changed the title to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1842.
Word spread quickly. The year of the sale, Melbourne Herald editor James Cavanagh, citing Sydney Herald advertising rates and circulation ‘beyond all precedent’, upped his own. Applying the core principles of caution, Congregationalism and conformity, John Fairfax & Sons (now Fairfax Media) survived the vicissitudes of nature and nurture through drought and flooding rain, the Federation of the Australian colonies, the Great War, Marxism, Darwinism, the suffragettes and women’s liberation.
John Fairfax’s eldest sons, Charles (1829–63) and James—who became Sir James Reading Fairfax (1834–1919)—became partners on New Year’s Eve 1856, creating the firm John Fairfax & Sons. (After Charles was thrown from a horse and killed, the third son, Edward Ross (1843–1953) joined the firm and, in 1865, became a partner.)
Of Sir James’s sons, (Sir) James Oswald (1863–1928) fathered (Sir) Warwick Oswald (1901–87), who fathered James Oswald (1933– ) and young Warwick Geoffrey Oswald (1960– ); John Hubert Fraser (1872–1950) fathered (Sir) Vincent Charles (1909–93), who fathered John Brehmer (1942– ). No female Fairfax joined the firm. ‘Only a girl,’ Sir James Reading Fairfax remarked when his oldest child, Mary Elizabeth (1858–1945), was born.
The family’s conservative ideology also cost circulation, revenue and influence. By 1899, David Syme’s Age, progressive in news coverage, liberal in editorials, supporting the acquittals of the Eureka rebels, sold 130,000 when the Herald, Gavin Souter reports, sold ‘regularly in the high sixty thousands and sometimes into the low seventy thousands’. The Sydney Morning Herald recommended a vote for Labor once (1961) in the 60 years following Federation.
When he wrote The Story of John Fairfax (1941), the founder’s grandson, John F. Fairfax, saw in the old man’s portrait eyes of honesty and a mouth suggesting kindliness, firmness and strength. The doctrines the family tried to follow were ‘the stern rigidity of truth and the simple rules of unselfishness’. In this and later books they wrote, published or authorised about the dynasty’s newspapers—Company of Heralds (1981) and Heralds and Angels by Souter (1991), Give My Regards to Broadway by James Fairfax (1991) and The Man Who Couldn’t Wait (1990) by Vic Carroll—the Fairfaxes established new standards for self-scrutiny in Australian journalism. In the small Australian book publishing market, while Souter and Fairfax helped the company by pre-empting more critical works, James Fairfax, reading the work in progress, made no attempt to bridle Souter, one of the most gifted non-fiction writers of his generation. In its news coverage of its own travails, the Sydney Morning Herald set new standards.
Christmas dinners at the family home in Bellevue Hill were a Fairfax tradition from 1858. At the newspaper’s 150th anniversary dinner on 15 April 1981, chairman James Fairfax said his mother told him ‘all my friends tell me the Herald has gone Labor, but then they always say that at election time’.
James thought the difference between cultures in his generation and that of the first John Fairfax was that, in the founder’s time, ‘generally speaking motive was not suspect’. Now he and the family were constantly accused of forcing views down people’s throats. He also regretted his failure to understand the attitudes, intentions and values his half-brother. The son of Sir Warwick’s third wife, Mary, Warwick Geoffrey Oswald was 27 years younger than James.
Having convinced himself without consulting other members that he was acting in the family’s interests, young Warwick Fairfax made a bid for John Fairfax & Sons—first announced on John Laws’ 2UE radio program on 31 August 1987—through a shelf company, Tryart Pty Ltd. Warwick would be proprietor, the first to hold the title since the death of his great-grandfather, Sir James Reading Fairfax.
Though both Warwicks were Christians in the family tradition—Sir Warwick insisted to agnostic editor John Douglas Pringle in April 1970 that the paper had run a religious leader at Easter since ‘time immemorial’—the tempera- mental gulf between them was large. The father concealed an intelligent inner pragmatist inside his outer dogmatic reactionary. He wrote three plays and a book, The Triple Abyss: Towards a Modern Synthesis (1965), on science, religion and philosophy.
The son, trying to take control and fearing opportunistic offers, took chances, including using a financier, Laurie Connell, who owned hundreds of racehorses and later served a year in prison for conspiring to pervert the course of justice. James Fairfax, whose acceptance—with other family members he held 33.5 per cent— would guarantee success, said Warwick’s ‘purpose, motive, method of proceeding and choice of advisers’ were all obstacles. ‘The family had never been consulted about the proposal nor even made aware of it until the last minutes when it was too late to do anything about it.’
Warwick mystified James. There was the ‘Fairfax reticence, but there was also a deeper quality I could not quite define which made me wonder if I ever knew what he was really thinking’. At the heart of the world’s oldest family communication business was a communication breakdown.
The Fairfaxes attracted not just knighthoods, but portraitists, including Tom Roberts (of Sir James Reading, 1898), John Longstaff (Sir James Oswald, 1927), Walter A. Bowring (Sir James Oswald, 1929) and Judy Cassab (Sir Warwick, 1955).
The privatised John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd was forced to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars, refinanced in 1988 with long-term bank debt and American junk bonds. ‘Then’, Gavin Souter reported, ‘the economy faltered, the interest burden became intolerable, the company restructured, tried in vain to do so a second time and went into receivership’ (reported in the Herald as ‘Banks end the Fairfax era’), opening the door to takeover by the Canadian Conrad Black in 1993 with the company name John Fairfax Holdings. Black held 25 per cent and Kerry Packer’s Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd 15 per cent. After intense lobbying to increase his stake failed, Black sold out to New Zealand’s Brierley Investments in 1966.
After John Fairfax Holdings merged with Rural Press, the company changed its name to Fairfax Media on 12 January 2007 and regained control of the Canberra Times, with Rural Press’s John B. Fairfax returning to the Fairfax board. He sold his remaining 9.7 per cent stake in Fairfax Media in 2011.