The announcement of News Corporation Australia chief executive Kim Williams’ resignation has been greeted with surprise. Williams spent 20 months in the job after heading up subscription network Foxtel for 10 years. His departure comes in the middle of an Australian election campaign amid wider structural reforms taking place within News Corp Australia. We asked media experts for comment:
Andrea Carson, Lecturer and Project Officer 2013electionwatch.com.au at University of Melbourne
When [New York Post editor] Col Allan came out to Australia recently there was a lot of focus on how this would impact the company’s coverage of the Labor party during the election campaign and the re-election chances of Kevin Rudd. I think in fact Allan’s primary mission would have been to see how Kim Williams was performing, and so the timing of Williams’ departure is not any coincidence.
For a close observer there were signs this was about to happen. There was much dismay within News about the severity of the cuts to editorial staff that was making it very difficult for an organisation that prides itself on producing good quality daily journalism.
There was a disconnect within News Corp Australia’s cultural environment between Kim Williams, who’s come from a corporate, subscriber-based culture, within Foxtel, and News Corp Australia journalists loyal to the print business, which in many ways behaves as a family - you are either on the inside, or the outside.
Often, I think he found himself on the outside rather than the inside. There were also indications that he had a different future direction for The Australian, which historically is a newspaper Rupert Murdoch has been very fond of and has owned since 1964. Already a subscriber model online, Williams was pushing for the printed version to have an end date. That obviously creates tension around the long-term direction of a newspaper like The Australian, and those tensions, I imagine, are not there right now.
If you weigh up his time at News Corp Australia he was a pretty strong defender of the company when it came to media regulation and media reform, proactively defending what he called “freedom of speech” and pushing to limit any further media regulation. That ended up being a very effective campaign.
So I don’t think from the company’s perspective that he would have been viewed as under-performing, given that the media reform legislation did not survive the first week of it being presented to the parliament. Kim Williams presented some pretty rigorous arguments.
The economic environment is difficult for newspapers right across the developed world. I’m not sure it’s fair to put too much of that at his feet. The Australian company has gone through a lot of transition in the last 12 months, having been separated from the parent arm, the very lucrative 20th Century Fox, that had been able to subsidise its print operations for most of its life.
Terry Flew, Professor of Media and Communications at Queensland University of Technology
It seems very surprising. It certainly seemed last year when News announced their restructure and the ways in which they were making staff changes, Kim Williams seemed very much in demand at News Corp Australia and he’s certainly a very highly respected figure in Australian media circles and was seen as a very successful CEO of Foxtel.
There have been rumours posed in Crikey and elsewhere of something of a backlash to the structural changes (splitting News Corp’s newspapers and film interests). If those rumours are to be believed, the backlash was being led by current editors from the newspapers, notably The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and some fairly prominent former editors of News Corp publications who remain on the payroll, such as the Telegraph’s Piers Akerman.
There seems to have been more of an edge to the Daily Telegraph, and today’s front cover of the Courier Mail, since Col Allan’s return. Col Allan was an editor for News Limited during the 1975 federal election which is the last time there were really significant ructions around News Corps coverage of a federal election through its newspapers.
Whether they’re connected is very hard to gauge. I personally didn’t think that Rudd’s comments were having that much of an impact. I didn’t think the idea that the NBN was going to impact negatively on Foxtel particularly plausible, because any media business would in my view be welcoming an investment in high speed broadband.
Also, there’s an element that it plays well in the Labor heartland to stick it into Rupert Murdoch, there’s no question about that. Whether it swings undecided voters is, I think, quite a different issue.
Essentially what’s happened for Williams is he’s been left with the newspaper industry which, as we all know, has been struggling.
There was even a report I saw this week which suggested The Australian, which is the flagship, has run a substantial loss. So, this would have posed a great difficulty for Williams, surely, if he was looking at the future of News Corp Australia. It’s very hard to say what Kim Williams’ own views may have been subsequent to those that he’s put on the public record.
But yes, the newspaper business is struggling. The impact of the subscription offers for both News (Corp) and Fairfax is very hard to gauge … its hard to see how it’s really recouping the revenues that once came from classified advertising.
The sales prices we’ve seen the last month in the US for such flagship papers as The Boston Globe and The Washington Post indicate that there’s not a lot of preparedness to invest in newspapers. At least it’s at a substantially decreased amount compared to what there was ten or 20 years ago.
Joseph Fernandez, Head of Department, Journalism at Curtin University
Williams played a pivotal role in arguing against the ill-conceived media reforms proposed by the government following the Finkelstein media inquiry. In July last year Williams threatened to challenge the reforms if they were introduced. The Greens were among those who doubted the chances of such a challenge succeeding.
In a speech to the South Australian Press Club Williams said: “We’d take the matter as far as we can … If people intend to have this stoush, one which is wholly avoidable, if they intend to have it, let’s have it.”
Former High Court judge Ian Callinan was today reported as saying in a legal opinion written jointly with a Sydney barrister, that the broad powers proposed for a statutory regulator of all news media would likely to have generated a successful constitutional challenge.
Whether such a challenge would have succeeded is, of course, now a purely academic question. Notwithstanding that, Kim will leave a lasting legacy for his efforts in the arena of freedom of expression in Australia. The nation is fortunate to have had such strong leadership from a media luminary at a critical time.