05/03/2008 - 22:00

Independents eye WAN board

05/03/2008 - 22:00

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The West Australian newspaper remains venerable in one way or another, according to those circling seats on its owner’s board.

Independents eye WAN board

Brash headlines may increasingly reflect its tabloid size, and attract the ire of the state government, but The West Australian newspaper remains venerable in one way or another, according to those circling seats on its owner’s board.

Existing and potential candidates to the board of the newspaper’s publisher, WA Newspapers Holdings Ltd, said the organisation’s special place in the state was a key element in their decision to seek a directorship in the wake of a Kerry Stokes-led spill attempt.

Holding the belief that he can add value to the publishing group by assisting with its online strategy, low-key Perth-based internet entrepreneur Aidan Montague described the newspaper as iconic, while University of Western Australia deputy vice-chancellor Margaret Seares, another to have confirmed her independent nomination for the board, considered it a WA institution.

Even Perth businessman John Poynton, who has kept a relatively low profile since last year’s failed management buyout attempt at Alinta Ltd, which he chaired, said he had not been nominated but could not rule out running for the board of a company because of its special place in the state’s corporate landscape.

“I am potentially interested, but I am not chasing it,” Mr Poynton said.

A former senior executive at US-based Cisco Systems, Mr Montague said he was not aligned to either the existing board or the Stokes’ camp, having been asked to stand by former SGIO chairman Ron Cohen, a current WAN shareholder.

He said WAN’s key asset, daily newspaper The West Australian, was an icon in Western Australia which could benefit from technological change.

“I have long held the belief that the mixture of traditional and new media is a powerful combination,” Mr Montague said.

The Irish-born businessman said he did not know what WAN’s internet strategy was but he believed that it should be about widening its online presence.

“The objective is to control as much virtual real estate as possible,” he said.

An engineer by training, Mr Montague has significant experience in internet commerce beyond his days at Cisco.

He established golf.com.au in the 1990s, which resulted in Australia’s first independent golf tour, the Australian Players Tour, which ran 14 professional golf tournaments before he disbanded the events side of the business to join Cisco.

He is also a founder of a business offering online sales advice called GlobeVista.

After establishing Cisco’s business in Australia from the east coast, Mr Montague worked for the group in the UK and Singapore before returning to Perth several years ago for family reasons.

Well known in academic and arts circles in WA and nationally, Ms Seares said she believed her background, in both executive and board roles across a range of government and not-for-profit organisations suited the situation WAN found itself in.

Ms Seares, who was nominated by her mother, said she saw the publisher attempting to appeal to different age groups with their own views on how information ought to be delievered.

“I suspect that a lot of the issues are issues we have grappled with at UWA,” she said.

“It is about this changing demographic and how people expect to receive their information and knowledge. The media is dealing with those issues too.”

Planning to retire from UWA at the end of the year, Ms Seares also said that, having worked at WA’s sandstone university for nearly two decades, she understood the role of iconic institutions and what the WA community expected of them.

Ms Seares said she was also aware of the issue of editorial independence.

“My view is the board sets the tone for the organisation.”

In the mid-1990s, Ms Seares was CEO of the state’s Department of the Arts and went on to become chair of the Australia Council, the federal government’s arts funding and advisory agency.

Her arts background had led to speculation that she could be linked the bid led by Mr Stokes, a well-known arts supporter, but Ms Seares said she has no dealings with him.

Nominations for board positions will be accepted until the end of business this week, going to a vote at an extraordinary meeting on April 23.

Mr Stokes, whose interests control 19.4 per cent of WAN, and one of his key executives, Peter Gammell, have both nominated for the board, at the same time as requisitioning a meeting to remove the Herdsman-based publisher’s four independent directors – Jenny Fear, Mel Ward, Erich Fraunschiel, and chairman Peter Mansell.

The WAN board has questioned the move by Mr Stokes’ Seven Network Ltd, claiming it has a conflict of interest and was simply trying to take control without paying a takeover premium.

The Stokes camp has levelled charges of poor performance at WAN in targeting the directors.

In seeking the removal of four board members but only nominating two of its own, Seven’s representatives have stated that they would support other candidates on their merits.

Former editor-in-chief of The Age newspaper and ex-Melbourne Football Club CEO, Steve Harris, has also reportedly put himself forward.

Mr Harris was a long-time editorial executive at The Age and then the Herald-Sun in Melbourne. In 2002 he founded the magazine Melbourne with the backing of media magnate Harold Mitchell. The magazine folded in 2005. He could not be reached for comment.

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