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Fairfax war intensifies

The fight between Conrad Black, Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch for control of John Fairfax, the Australian newspaper publisher, was heightened last night after the company reported a surge in underlying profitability.

Despite reporting a small fall in post-tax profit for the six months to December from A$82m (£39m) to A$£81m, Fairfax's results show a 50 per cent rise after an abnormal tax benefit of A$28m, included in the 1993 figure, is excluded.

Fairfax is 24.9 per cent-owned by Mr Black's Telegraph group, while Mr Packer has increased his stake to 16.4 per cent.

In doing so, Mr Packer might have broken Australia's cross-media ownership rules that are meant to prevent television broadcasters from taking a controlling stakes in newspaper publishing businesses.

Australian law defines a controlling stake as owning more than 15 per cent of a company. However, the rules are unclear in that they allow the circumstances of ownership to be taken into account.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission is investigating Mr Packer's stake in Fairfax.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation has also been purchasing shares in the company recently. Mr Murdoch has insisted that he has no long-term interest in the company and the stake is only an investment.

His holding is still less than 5 per cent, at which point he would have to disclose his interest in the company.

Mr Black is known to want to increase his stake to 35 per cent, but at present is prevented from doing so by rules that prevent foreigners taking more than 25 per cent of an Australian media company. Mr Black is a Canadian.

Fairfax publishes the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Age and the Financial Review.

The company's improved performance was due to rising advertising revenues, a trend it expects to see continuing through the rest of the year.

Fairfax also anticipates savings from computerisation and commissioning of new equipment.

While the company has secured a fixed-price contract for the supply of news print for the rest of this year, next year's results are going to be hit by a 25 per cent rise in the price of news print costs, the company warned.

It hopes that these can be partially offset by reducing paper sizes and wastage.

Fairfax's turnover rose to A$479m, up from A$417m, a 15 per cent increase.

The company is paying an interim dividend of 3.5 cents, up from 2.5 cents in the first half last year.