26/03/2008 - 22:00

How the high ground was lost

26/03/2008 - 22:00

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You don’t have to be born here to be accepted.

One of the nice things about Perth, in my view, is that you really don’t have to be born here to be accepted.

I know there are stories of new arrivals being greeted with the classic Perth question, “What school did you go to”, but as Western Australia has grown and accommodated so many newcomers – 27,000 new arrivals last year – that naïve question, which was never intended to be unwelcoming, has hopefully become redundant.

And you only have to look at the battle taking place over one of the state’s oldest institutions to see how corporate WA is no longer a localsonly affair.

The battleground is the boardroom of WA Newspapers Holdings Ltd, publisher of the The West Australian newspaper and considered one of the state’s venerable institutions, which is headed by two people born outside the country.

In the blue corner is Peter Mansell, a lawyer who migrated from South Africa and quickly became part of the establishment here.

Mr Mansell is credited with driving the restructuring of Freehills in Perth following its merger with former local leader Parker & Parker, and the subsequent nationalisation of the partnership.

He has since gone on to become one of Perth’s busiest directors, too busy some suggest, though he has always been at pains to point out that workloads are different from individual to individual.

Mr Mansell’s connection with The West goes beyond his directorship.

As a finance journalist with the paper in 1990s, I worked with his daughter, Ingrid, who worked internationally before ending up at The Australian Financial Review in Sydney.

In the red corner is Peter Gammell, a Scottish-born migrant who has been working with Kerry Stokes for more than a quarter of a century and now runs the private business affairs of the media magnate, which are housed in West Perth-based Australian Capital Equity Pty Ltd.

The key assets, of course, are a 41 per cent stake in Seven Network Ltd and the Caterpiller equipment distributor WesTrac Pty Ltd, which employs 3,600 people in Australian and China.

Other companies at which Mr Gammell has held directorships include former The Canberra Times publisher Federal Capital Press of Australia Pty Ltd, Community Newspaper Group Ltd, and B Digital Ltd.

Corporate attack MUCH has been said about the The West’s editorial stance of the past few years under the direction of editor, Paul Armstrong, a former colleague of mine.

That the newspaper’s editorial direction has not been the subject of attacks from Seven Network Ltd may be as much about the politics of newspapers as about the opinion of board aspirants Kerry Stokes and Peter Gammell.

Firstly, the view is a public attack would only encourage The West to attack back, rather than playing a relatively low-key role in coverage of the issue as it has to date.

Secondly, editorial interference is a big issue in publishing, especially for a monopoly daily, so sensitivities are best addressed by leaving well alone.

Of course, Seven has subtly exposed The West’s editorial to criticism by focusing on its circulation – the main measure of editorial performance.

In my view, The West’s strong editorial lines of the past few years have alienated so many people in business and government that Mr Stokes and Mr Gammell don’t need to concern themselves so much with the normally hyper-sensitive subject of editorial independence.

Not that I suggest they plan to interfere.

From the evidence at Seven, their involvement in that side of the business is minimal compared with the late Kerry Packer’s influence at rival station Channel Nine.

But a board battle at an institution like the publisher of The West usually would require a greater risk in this area.

I liken the whole thing to politics.

Support for a party or leader can be weakened by one policy.

Voters who would normally be conservative, for instance, may change allegiance over one left-of-field issue, which overwhelms their normal tendencies.

So too can support for a company, especially a daily newspaper publisher, wane if it has put offside those it may be targeting its arguments at.

If this was just a pure control argument, the WA Newspapers Holdings Ltd board ought to be able to run the barbarians at the gate defence with more success.

But it hasn’t done so yet because too many people don’t like the newspaper as it stands.

That means WAN appears to have lost a major weapon in the battle to see off Seven.

Rightly or wrongly, it has lost the moral high ground that editorial independence usually provides.

The newspaper’s main consumers may love its anti-institutional efforts and endless tabloid-style targeting of high-profile people, but in the battle for the boardroom that may have the opposite effect.

While WAN has a big shareholder base, winning the hearts and minds of important big investors is more important.

They can be more easily influenced by political and business figures who now hate The West with a passion.

That makes it a far more even battle than it may have been.

• The journalist has a financial interest in WAN Holdings Ltd.

  

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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