Obituary: Sir Vincent Fairfax
Saturday 17 April 1993
VINCENT FAIRFAX contributed more to the Sydney Morning Herald and the Fairfax group of companies in Australia than most people appreciated. He was a modest countryman and few even in the company understood his influence.
As was not uncommon in his branch of the Fairfax family, the young Vincent, not long from Oxford, joined the company in a relatively junior sales position in 1933. He was appointed advertising manager of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1937. (His eldest son, John B. Fairfax, did much the same, working his way from a minor sales position to bigger executive roles in the 1960s and 1970s.)
Vincent Fairfax became a director of the then private John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd in 1946 and, other than a three-year break in the 1950s, was a director of the company until its dramatic and disastrous takeover by (Young) Warwick Fairfax Jnr in 1987.
Young Warwick is the son of Sir Warwick Fairfax, whose death in early 1987 cleared the way for his son's reckless move, at the age of 27, on the company. Vincent was Sir Warwick's cousin and these two knights for 20 years led their remarkably different sides of the family in an alliance to control the company until Vincent and his family joined with the forceful former chief executive RAG Henderson and Sir Warwick's eldest son, James, to expel Sir Warwick as chairman in 1976.
Warwick Fairfax was emotional, deeply interested in politics, travelled and read widely and married thrice. Vincent, by contrast, became a solid and respected figure in the Sydney business world, a private and generous philanthropist and gave much time to activities in the Salvation Army, the Boy Scouts and the Boys' Brigade. Outside the boardroom few understood how significant his influence on the Fairfax company was.
When, as chief editorial executive of the Sydney newspapers, I began attending John Fairfax Ltd board meetings, it was Vincent Fairfax's questions I found most difficult to answer. The modern manners and morals which now permeate the mass media were appearing in a modest way in the Herald, partly as a result of my encouragement. Sex and the relationships between men and women (and men and men) became topics for a quality paper to discuss; vulgarisms like 'bloody' and, occasionally worse, 'bugger', were used and reported prominently in quoted statements from courts and parliament. 'Ms' was infiltrated into the National Times and other Fairfax papers by subversive women and their allies.
Vincent Fairfax disapproved of each of these developments and exercised his powers as a director to question them persistently every step of the way, though in the end he gave way to editors and managers who argued that this was the modern way.
He was, it seemed to me when I first attended the board meetings in 1980, a perfect nuisance. When he left the board in 1987 after Warwick Fairfax Jnr's takeover, I had come to regard him as one of the rocks on which the reputation of the Herald and the Fairfax group was built. He questioned executives and fellow directors but he did not try to dictate, though on occasions he might have. He disagreed, but never quarrelled. His questions relied on a consistent body of principles which he was not embarrassed to acknowledge were conservative and Christian.
He consistently raised the issue of fair play at board meetings, both in the columns of the papers and in the activities of the company and its board. This rather gentle conservatism instinctively collided with the slick and the glib, the young and the modern, some or all of which I often represented at board meetings. Is it fair? Is it decent? The best characteristics of the Fairfax papers owed much to these persistent questions.
Like all in the Fairfax family, he held the Sydney Morning Herald in the centre of his affections and the takeover by Warwick Jnr and the consequent departure from the company and loss of influence over the paper of Vincent's branch of the family - and indeed all other Fairfaxes - was a bitter and unforgivable blow. The final board meeting of the old company at which control was handed over to Warwick Jnr was a fearful, emotional experience for Vincent Fairfax and it is true to say that his health did not recover from this experience.
Vincent Fairfax's widespread family used the proceeds of the takeover to buy a number of assets from the Fairfax company, including a 50-per- cent interest in a chain of rural and provincial newspapers and a company which is now the biggest magazine printer in Australia.
Both enterprises have been expanded vigorously and successfully and Vincent's two sons, John B. Fairfax and Timothy Fairfax, and indeed the rest of the family, enjoy the independent control of their operations and are probably a good deal wealthier than before the takeover. Yet the scars of the loss of the Sydney Morning Herald must still hurt as the family observes the financial deals that have led Conrad Black to take control of the company and the newspaper.
Vincent Fairfax admired his cousin Sir Warwick Fairfax for his erudition, sense of history and facility with words, but Sir Vincent himself was a better newspaperman than most ever knew.
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