Flat White

Farewell to the man who brought The Spectator to Australia. Sorta…

12 January 2017

4:43 PM

12 January 2017

4:43 PM

jamesfairfaxThe idiot children at the media company that bears his family name still haven’t got the story up online, but according to The Australian former Fairfax chair, arts benefactor and philanthropist James Fairfax has died.

Under James’ stewardship, John Fairfax & Sons bought a perilously indebted Spectator magazine from oilman Algy Cluff in 1985, early in the transformative era of Charles Moore’s editorship.

James took an interest in his new property; attending Spectator lunches, including one where, Tatler reported at the time, columnist Paul Johnson lectured the confirmed bachelor on the perils of “homosexualists”.

Fairfax was able to use its commercial expertise and networks to support the brilliant young editor. The readership, best described as having been “select”, began to climb. The Spectator became an important intellectual force of the conservative revolution underway in Britain and, in a sign of the triumph of Thatcherism, its circulation outstripped that of the New Statesman for the very first time.

The successful, influential magazine we know today is very much a product of that era. And so is The Spectator Australia.

As a Fairfax publication, the magazine had access to Fairfax’s distribution network. Within a week of its publication in London, The Spectator could be found in suburban newsagencies across Australia, where — of course — a curiously complementary political transformation to Britain’s was underway, but one guided by Labor.

The Spectator moved outside university collections and a handful of libraries, eagerly devoured by Australian readers as a source of inspiration as much as information.

The Fairfax ownership was short-lived. The Spectator was sold to the Telegraph group after James’ half-brother and successor at the helm Warwick Fairfax crashed the company in a storm of toxic debt.

But by then the magazine was part of our intellectual landscape. The distribution deals remained in place. Australia established itself as The Spectator’s largest market outside Britain; a natural home for the edition of its own that appeared in 2008.

The Fairfax story of the last 30 years has been one of decline and shame.

But there’s one upside, thanks in no small part to James Fairfax. You’re reading it.

Illustration: James Fairfax AO, Bryan Westwood, 1991, National Portrait Gallery

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