Rex Gardner, the long-standing managing director of Davies Bros, publisher of the Mercury in Hobart, will retire on Friday, bringing to a close a 46-year newspaper career.
Mr Gardner began in newspapers in 1969 as a young copy boy on The Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne, where he rose to become chief-of-staff. He went on to be appointed editor-in-chief, then later managing director, of Leader Newspapers, and general manager of The Fiji Times as well as serving as Davies Bros managing director twice for a total of 18 years.
He remembers his time in Fiji with particular fondness and sadness. He had two stints at The Fiji Times, from 1985 to 1988 and from 2008 to 2009 during the term of the military government led by Frank Bainimarama.
The government had assumed complete control over the media, and actively censored the newspaper.
“You had a military government, they didn’t want us writing anything that was going to, in their minds, incite hatred against the military or create violence,” Mr Gardner said.
Still, the newspaper had an important role to play for its readers.
“We were their beacon. They were scared, and I think to be able to provide them with some comfort and stability. I thought that was pretty rewarding because I know it worked well for them,” he said.
Eventually, Mr Gardner retaliated against the military government’s control. To get the message across, he and his team created a newspaper with no news.
“We had a no-news newspaper, which was 99 per cent advertising, with only small editorial section explaining what the newspaper was,” he said.
The manoeuvre paid off for a time, with the military realising it needed to maintain a flow of information to the public and allowed the paper to publish, largely uncensored.
Unfortunately, this new-found freedom did not last long, and the military eventually stepped in, again censoring the paper.
Mr Gardner was the subject of a High Court ruling in which The Fiji Times was found in contempt of court and fined $F100,000 for publishing a letter that criticised the court’s validation of the December 2006 military coup by Bainimarama, who was elected Prime Minister last year. The penalty was dropped on the basis Mr Gardner enter a good behaviour bond for 12 months. He was later deported after the government declared him to be a prohibited immigrant
In Australia, Mr Gardner spent six years at Leader Newspapers. “You can’t get much closer to your readers than you do at the community newspaper level,” he said.
“The lifeblood of the business is staying close to your community, and pretty much running a vacuum cleaner of everything that’s happening, up and down the high street, and if you’re doing that properly then the advertising follows,” he said.
Mr Gardner believes regional papers also need to keep up with their readership.
“In fact, I think in some regards, the best days could be ahead of regional newspapers if they are staying really close to their communities. I think they will endure, no doubt about it, it’s just a matter of keeping their resources on the ground,” he said.
“And the temptation clearly is to extract resources to find efficiency when advertising starts to get hard, but there has to be a point when you say ‘well, enough is enough, we’re either in it or we’re not’.”
In retirement, he plans to travel with his wife, visiting Greece, Thailand, the UK, and other countries. Also on the agenda is motorcycling in the Himalayas.
Herald and Weekly Times stalwart Tom Salom will take over from Mr Gardner in Hobart from Monday, on a temporary basis as executive general manager. It is expected a permanent appointment will be made later in the year.