Fairfax journos strike, but more will be needed to save news media

22 March 2016
Marty Hirst

Editorial staff from the Fairfax newspapers took wildcat strike action last week to protest against the latest round of job cuts at the financially challenged publishing company.

The three-day stoppage was called in response to a Thursday afternoon email from management, which outlined a series of forced cuts that will result in around 120 members of the journalists’ union (MEAA) losing their jobs.

The striking journalists, from the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Financial Review, were rightly disgusted.

Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance “CEO” Paul Murphy described the cuts as a “body blow” to Fairfax. However, the irony of a union leader being referred to as CEO seems lost on Paul.

Insiders estimate that Fairfax is going to shed the equivalent of one full newsroom – adding to the 600 or so jobs that have been sliced out of the company over recent years.

In August, Fairfax imposed savage cuts on its regional newsrooms, which also led to a brief strike, but that did not stop the cuts. At the same time, the company announced up to one-third of staff in its community newspapers would also be sacked.

Last year, Fairfax announced a half-year profit of over $27 million – but it seems that the only really profitable part of the business is its real estate advertising division, Domain, which has been supporting the news operations. Now that might be about to stop.

Fairfax may split itself sometime in the near future, with profitable divisions kept and the loss-making newspapers either shut down completely (leaving only online mastheads) or sold off.

We must applaud the action of the striking journalists who didn’t wait for a Fair Work Commission hearing before walking off the job – effectively making the walk-out an illegal strike under current (Labor-crafted) industrial relations laws.

The union also launched an online petition calling on Fairfax to reconsider the cuts. But that sort of symbolic action will not force Fairfax management to reverse the job cuts and it certainly won’t secure the jobs of the remaining journalists.

The CFMEU promptly offered its support to the Fairfax workers and there was a big social media campaign to encourage a boycott of Fairfax products during the strike period. This was welcome and it showed publicly that most of us are loyal to the journalists and what they do rather than to the various Fairfax mastheads or to the company itself.

To reverse the cuts and put pressure on Fairfax bosses not to make further cuts requires a campaign against newsroom cuts that encompasses the whole of the news industry.

The cuts are not limited to Fairfax. While you won’t read about them in the Murdoch press, News Corporation’s titles are not immune from job losses. Nor are the commercial broadcasters, the ABC or the SBS. Job cuts are right across the board as the entire news industry undergoes a massive shake up.

The problem is that the bottom line in the news industry is, well, the bottom line.

Media is like any other business – news is a commodity produced for a profit by capitalist entities. And profit, not public interest is the driving force behind the journalism industry.

The same rules apply at the state-funded broadcasters. The ABC and the SBS are forced to compete within the “for-profit” culture of the media business and they are subject to the same pressure to commercialise their output.

Not even the legendary left-liberal Guardian is immune from these pressures. In the same week as the Fairfax strike, the Guardian, which is owned by a not-for-profit trust, also announced hundreds of job losses globally.

These are the reasons why the Turnbull government is considering forcing a merger between ABC and SBS, pressuring the ABC to take advertisements, and, at the extreme end of Liberal party rhetoric, the eventual privatisation of public service broadcasting.

The government is also proposing media ownership changes to prop up the ailing media giants. When legislated, the changes will allow News Corporation to get bigger at the expense of its rivals and to move into television through the potential acquisition of the Ten network.

Once these moves are underway, there will be more job cuts in newsrooms around the country.

The Fairfax strike – while it won’t result in a victory that saves the journos’ jobs – is an important indicator of the way forward and should be a rallying call to news workers across the nation that they too must gear up for a fight over jobs.

The MEAA leadership is unlikely to draw the same conclusions. They will try to reach a resolution of the dispute through dialogue with Fairfax and not rock the boat anywhere else in the meantime.

This is obvious in the language Paul Murphy used in a press release. As one CEO to another, Murphy called on Fairfax bosses to consider “smarter ways of identifying business efficiencies as a way of lowering costs so that it can continue to produce the high standard of journalism its audience wants”.

He also offered business advice to Fairfax, rather than rallying his members to fight back. “Constantly cutting away swathes of the very people who create the journalism that is the reason your audience buys your product makes no sense”, Murphy said.

Apart from the petition, which is easy to ignore, the MEAA has launched a campaign it calls “Fair Go, Fairfax”, but the campaign website fairgofairfax.org.au merely bounces back to a petition at the MEAA site.

We have to be brutally honest and say that this is a pathetic response.

Senior Fairfax staff have reported that the whole workforce is “seething with anger” at the way they’ve been treated. If this anger were properly harnessed then a real campaign against the job cuts could be mounted.

Unfortunately, it is more likely that the anger will turn to disappointment, disillusionment and abandoning the struggle.

In the absence of a coordinated and militant fightback by MEAA members, the slow death by a thousand cuts will eventually wipe out Fairfax and possibly other news media outlets.

When that eventually happens our democracy will be poorer, there will be less public accountability for politicians, bosses and bureaucrats and fewer radical voices will be heard in the mainstream media.

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