When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

I’d like to say I’m unsurprised that the two local Fairfax papers in the Southern Highlands/Tablelands have failed to cover a massive local story that will come to the point of no return tonight, but I’m not.

The Berrima District Credit Union (BDCU), of which I am a long-time member, is putting to it’s AGM tonight (December 10), a major restructure. To my mind, the restructure amounts to little more than a takeover or privatisation of the BDCU by the Bendigo Bank.

The restructure is contained in this special resolution, sent to members some weeks ago:

That, for the purposes of section 13(a) of the Financial Sector (Business Transfer and Group Restructure) Act 1999 (Cth) (the Act) and paragraph 12(a) of the Transfer Rules No.1 of 2004 made pursuant to the Act, the partial transfer of business from Berrima District Credit Union Limited to Bendigo and Adelaide Bank Limited ABN 11 068 049 178 (the Transfer) is approved and is to be adopted, and that the name of the Mutual be changed to “Berrima District Mutual Limited”…”

The practical effect is that Bendigo Bank takes over loans, deposits and other banking services as of the date of transfer and the BDCU, being no longer a credit union due to the transfer, must change its name. The existing BDCU branches will become shopfronts for the Bendigo Bank but retain some measure of individual branding.

The BDCU argues this transfer, which they are calling an Alliance, is needed to ensure the organisation’s sustainability into the future. In fact, I have had a discussion with a board member who pointed out that small, independent credit unions are increasingly subject to takeover attempts by larger credit unions and banks.

The BDCU can wrap this deal up in words like ‘Alliance’ all it wants, but if you say a cat is a dog, it still remains a cat. If another organisation is taking over my loans and deposits, controlling my accounts and services, issuing my bank cards, holding my personal details, and deciding my fees, it looks like a takeover or a privatisation to me. (By the way, each of those things is listed as outcomes of the agreement in the 12 page document supplied to members.)

Now, with the details of the restructure out of the way, I turn back to the local Fairfax papers. The Southern Highland News has within its distribution area three of the BDCU’s branches, its headquarters and, I would suggest, a majority of members. Yet, not a word has been written about the proposal in the paper (or, at least on the website). Neither has the Goulburn Post, where the fourth BDCU branch is located, deigned to cover the story. Nor, should I add, has the Illawarra Mercury, though it at least has the excuse that the story would be irrelevant to most of its readership.

(Before I go on, a declaration: I have worked at the Southern Highland News. I have friends there, and a great respect for many of the journos who have and do work there.)

I contacted the editor of the SHN two weeks ago to ask if they knew of this story and the editor responded in the affirmative and a promise that “we are working on something.” I also flicked it to some former colleagues at ABC Illawarra, telling the journos there that I doubted the News would cover the story given the BDCU is a major and prominent advertiser (often on the front or back page).

So here we are, currently three hours from the AGM where the future of the region’s only locally-owned financial institution will be decided, in the face of a strong ‘Yes’ campaign from the BDCU itself, and the local paper has caved to commercial pressures and given up any semblance of asking questions on behalf of the community. And this is at a time when the ABC is closing regional outposts like the one where the journo who covered this story works.

Thanks, Fairfax.