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It’s a big if, but Gina Rinehart could set Fairfax agenda

There never has been, and is never likely to be, a rule that says someone who owns a company is not entitled to run it as she sees fit, within the limits of the law. Nor would such a statute be desirable, if we are serious about personal freedom and freedom of speech.

So in theory, if Gina Rinehart comes to own or control Fairfax Media — and she is a long way off doing that — she could do as she wished with editorial policy, hiring and firing as she saw fit to achieve her aims.

Having said that, media ownership is a complicated thing, full of traps for those who lack experience. The political and cultural issues are quite different from those in most other enterprises.

That media assets present very particular challenges has always been true. Just ask Frank Lowy, for example — an experienced and massively successful businessman in retail, who crashed and burnt when he bought into Channel Ten. The challenges are even greater at present, with the fundamental structural issues the media is addressing.

As well, Rinehart at Fairfax would face a board, which, for all its faults, has already stood up to one theoretically dominant proprietor in the Fairfax family. On the other hand, there is likely a fair bit of difference between the mild-mannered Fairfaxes and the outspoken Rinehart. And on the other hand again, the Fairfaxes at least understood the particular cultures of media, and of Fairfax Media in particular.

Rinehart would likely be an impatient learner, and there are some things that are hard to crash through, including strong boards and long-standing corporate cultures. If we assume she would want to achieve cultural change, she would have her work cut out. And she is not known as a patient person.

The main way a board exercises influence over editorial is in selecting the editor.

The various attempts in Fairfax history to shelter the newsrooms from the powers of proprietors have centred on the charters of editorial independence. These insisted that the editor, once appointed and given a budget, should be left to manage the newsroom as he or she (it was always he) saw fit.

There was no protection against an ill-motivated editor.

And the suasion that persuaded successive proprietors to sign the charter was political and moral in character: not legal. It rested on the political power of campaigning journalists and their supporters. So far, it has always been in the proprietors’ interests to at least pay lip service to the charter.

But we saw the limits of the power of the culture of the Fairfax newsrooms during the reign of Andrew Jaspan as editor of The Age. He was the subject of a virtual no-confidence motion passed by editorial staff over issues of editorial independence. Yet he survived for some time afterwards because he had the backing of the board and in particular the then chair, Ron Walker. What the journalists thought was close to irrelevant.

Senator Stephen Conroy was on the Jon Faine show this morning talking up the expected recommendation of the current Convergence Review, due to report next month. But going by the interim report issued late last year, the main mechanism for protecting diversity in media ownership, should the review’s recommendations be accepted, will be a public interest test.

That might be a good idea for all sorts of reasons, not least because convergence makes almost any other kind of regulation very difficult indeed. So far we have no details on how such a public interest test might be framed, but it is hard to think of any desirable or likely framing that would rule out Rinehart as proprietor of Fairfax just because she has strong views.

Clearly she is seeking to exert her influence but is she breaking the law by exerting an influence? No,” Conroy told Faine. “Do we need stronger laws in this area? Yes. We want to see a debate around a public interest test.”

Another point: there is a serious body of opinion among media investment analysts that moving to the right is a shrewd commercial move, because that is the point on the political spectrum where the most desirable A-B readers and viewers — those best able to pay for their content — are most likely to seek their media.

Whether or not that view is correct, those who are in any case inclined to the right wing of politics are likely to want to believe it. So Rinehart or others may well argue that changing Fairfax’s culture is good business, not only self-interested politics.

If we assume (and it has not been established beyond doubt) that Rinehart’s motivation for media ownership is the desire to see her political and business views reflected in editorial content, then that might be an issue for editors, journalists and their audiences. But it is hard to see how any legal public interest test would capture that concern.

Of more relevance might be a statutory regime involving a self-regulatory media standards body. This is one possible outcome of the current Finkelstein media inquiry, which reports at the end of this month to the Convergence Review.

Attacks on editorial integrity are more likely to be a breach of any standards adopted by such a body, rather than a breach of public interest tests in law.

If, as he seemed to be contemplating doing in public hearings last year, Finkelstein recommends that membership and funding  of such a body be compulsory for news media outlets, then it is likely to become the forum in which future issues of journalistic integrity are played out, including but not only battles between journalists, editors and proprietors. It had better be robust.

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  • 1
    paddy
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Reading your piece has left me a “little” bit more sanguine Margaret.
    But the thought of a national print media, totally dominated by Murdoch and Rinehart is a truly chilling prospect.

    I also, can’t see any legal reason why GR couldn’t take control of Fairfax.

    The cautionary example of Frank Lowy is somewhat reassuring.
    But Rhinehart is *seriously* richer than he was/is and far less highly geared.

    I guess we’ll just have cross our fingers and hope Finkelstein can come up with a workable plan, to exert some sort of restraint on the big print duopoly.

  • 2
    Jackol
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Margaret, a good summation of the situation.

    As you introduced it, the crux of the matter is that in law there is basically no distinction between a media company and a company that makes widgets. Of course the owner of the widget making company should be able to do whatever he or she wants with respect to what is produced and how, what colour they are etc.

    However, a media company is not any old company making widgets. The media (as they keep telling us) has a special relationship to our democratic institutions, the health of our polity, with important implications for governance, corruption, how informed the general public is on matters of importance etc.

    If Australia had a thriving diverse competitive media landscape, one media company being taken over here or there by a campaigning owner would not be an issue. We don’t have that. The new media is fostering some diversity, and that is to be celebrated, cherished, encouraged, but it doesn’t alter the reality that Fairfax is one of the handful of media companies in Australia that reaches a significant portion of the population and that has cultural and historical ties that give it a significant input into how the public receives its news.

    To be left with News Limited and Gina Rinehart, both as owners of campaigning journals, and the rest of the media landscape consisting of minor players, is a disaster in the making. Codes of conduct, editorial policies meeting minimum standards, etc etc only stop the grossest of abuses, as we know. They provide a boundary, but they can’t force a paper to produce accurate articles in context with appropriate/proportionate emphasis …

    Sadly, as pointed out in the article, there is no solution in terms of barring Gina Rinehart acquiring a controlling interest in Fairfax. The only solution is to foster a more diverse media landscape to try to dilute the influence of the News Limiteds and Gina Rineharts and Kerry Stokes of the world. How to do it is the billion dollar question.

  • 3
    Jean
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    OMG! This is a disaster! What if she staffs the Herald with intellectual lightweights who are just marking time until they get on-air jobs at 2BL?

  • 4
    Microseris
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Clearly Rinehart didn’t buy for the investment potential of Fairfax. I think you are dreaming if you think her objective is anything other than to wield influence. Just as it was at Channel 10 (Bolt anyone?).

    Once she gets on the board (which is inevitable), right wing loonies like the IPA’s of the world cannot seriously argue that we do not live in an oligarchy.

  • 5
    Rob Dawson
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Very strange piece. You have the “dominant” Fairfaxes, blocked by an heroic board from exerting “influence”. Suddenly then they are the mild Fairfaxes. Then the Fairfaxes who “understand”. Enter the Gina. Imputation: mongol hordes imminent!
    Basic premise: wrong. The Ming in this empire is busted. The porcelain ain’t worth p-ssing on. As for charters, they were fine for parades against Robert Maxwell and so on. But really, would even Gough and Mal show up in Treasury Place this time?
    Wreckers have been inside the walls for some time.
    It’s way too late Margaret. Better to pray for Graeme Wood and others like him: this old church has no parishioners.

  • 6
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    But we saw the limits of the power of the culture of the Fairfax newsrooms during the reign of Andrew Jaspan as editor of The Age. He was the subject of a virtual no-confidence motion passed by editorial staff over issues of editorial independence. Yet he survived for some time afterwards because he had the backing of the board and in particular the then chair, Ron Walker. What the journalists thought was close to irrelevant.”

    That would be the same Jaspan who was applauded by the same journalists when he addressed them after being kicked out…

    Be wary of Margaret Simons- she fails to disclose her profound dislike of Jaspan.

    Can’t be easy being a paragon of ethical journalism…

  • 7
    Suzanne Blake
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    I will just be happy if they drop the price of the Financial Review by $2 a copy. $3 is a rip off, so read at cafe.

  • 8
    RomanJohn
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Suzanne,

    Why should they drop the price? Don’t you rent seeking bludgers know the market sets the price?

    I work hard so I can hapily afford the cover price for some quality while the low end of the market pick up a free daily or paw over some second hand copy with ink stained hands.

    If you can’t afford it, don’t complain about the system, GET A JOB like the rest of the top end of town who enjoy the FIN.

  • 9
    GLJ
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Yes an interesting development & report from Margaret. And yes it is the appointment of personnel who know Gina’s agenda that spooks us all.

    If Gina can accumulate that kind of power through her accumulation of wealth then she will be able to influence the agenda of one of the main sources of information in this country. The most obvious point is that Gina thinks that she can. I doubt she is investing to make more MONEY. She’s got most of it already. No her goal is influence. And the mining tax is THE most obvious target. Spend a penny save a pound.

    This issue is the very crux of democracy as we know it. If the wealthy can control the information that the punter receives then the punter is controlled by the nature of the information that is received.
    Can the punter think outside the box? OR are we confined to dealing with the information as it is presented by authority figures . SMH / THE AGE / ET AL.

    Gina is after influence and power through media ownership. Those who believe she will not try to influence editorial as major owner do so at their own risk. Besides…. Joe Hockey reckons she’s a great Aussie anyway & he certainly wouldn’t want to upset her. She might wield her power in his direction. I think I can see him Kowtowing from here.

  • 10
    Suzanne Blake
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    @ RomanJohn

    I have a job. Just the Fin review is NOT worth $3. Its largely press releases, which you can get free anyway, so I read it at the cafe!!.

    Its my choice, the market dictated.

  • 11
    Masters Jill
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    i just heard on abc24 that abolishing the mining tax would add some 5 billion to her wealth. no guesses why she want to close the only gap in total right wing dominance of the “news” landscape. she should just buy it right out, even if it fails within a year news will still be her personal bullhorn, she won’t be short of a platform for spreading fear and lies if her little fairfax venture fails. all she’d lose is a pittance to what she’d gain.

  • 12
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    The money? You jest. Rinehart wants influence. Rinehart represents primitive extractive capitalism. She and her cronies emasculated the mining tax, idiotically introduced at the end of Labour’s term (instead of being rammed through at the start, in early 2008).

    Apart from pursuing vested interest, the rise of Rinehart is yet more fallout from climate extremism- the intolerance and repression of dissent against global warming fanaticism enables Rinehart to posture as a populist.

  • 13
    sickofitall
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Rinehart, not known for her intelligence or business nous, is another welfare bludging tax sucking leech, of course. Look at ch 10… Should be thriving, but isn’t. If it wasn’t for the massive tax breaks and protection shes got, he’d have lost her fathers fortune. The herald is a rag anyway. She won’t fix it.

  • 14
    john2066
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    This piece of human waste is only wealthy because her already rich father staked out a mining lease, and then onsold it.

    The mining industry pays a princely 7.5% royalty on what they extract and keeps the rest for themselves.

    This is on minerals that we actually own. Its no different to a thief breaking into your house and stealing your possessions and leaving a note saying ‘its ok, I’ve left 7.5% for you’.

  • 15
    linda domaschenz
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    SB, so you’ll be happy to relinquish freedom of the press just so your beloved FIN was a $1 cheaper. Oh! dear. Obviously by reading your free copy in the local cafe your investment advice or portfolio hasn’t returned quite what you’d expected or poor investment choices.
    On the other hand maybe the baristas are so competent they make & serve the coffee so promptly that rather than digest the required financial advice, you are savouring the caffeine quicker than you can peruse. Being such a successful business, of course they may want you off their seat quicker so they can make another $1. Heard the expression bums on seats?
    Go give your extra $ to Gina it may pay off, if that’s your true purpose in life to make or lose a $ or let the cafe pay for it, it’s your dilemma.

  • 16
    linda domaschenz
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    @John2066 and let’s not forget Langs quote how if we poisoned the water of all WA indigenous Australians we’d rid ourselves of the problem, not a direct quote but nearly. Try Wittenoom and blue asbestos ( of which I have a 1st cousin in WA) dying of this fatal disease as we speak, not sure how long- only months. She’s in her early 60’s very healthy prior to contracting. Remember Abbott and Bernie Bantor?
    This woman whilst the richest woman in Oz and soon to be world, is not of good enough character to be on the board of a major publishing co. We deserve better and we deserve a free press.
    This goes well beyond money, to which $192 M is chicken scraps to our Gina, we have a right to a transparent and unbiased media. Many don’t realise that Rural Press for many in regional Oz is the only paper. The elderly are not blogging or reading the news on the net.
    These publications are where they gain their world view from. It can be a safety net or it can be very scary place with fear/sensationalism and ultra right wing views imposed upon them.
    We do not need or want her.

  • 17
    Andrew McIntosh
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    (T)here is a serious body of opinion among media investment analysts that moving to the right is a shrewd commercial move, because that is the point on the political spectrum where the most desirable A-B readers and viewers — those best able to pay for their content — are most likely to seek their media.”

    If that isn’t craven cynicism then there is no such thing.

  • 18
    john2066
    Posted Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    Gina is australia’s biggest welfare bludger. Full stop. The government back monopoly (the mining leases) that she holds give 92.5% of revenue to her, 7.5% to us.

    This is our money. I personally am fed up with her taking it. Give it back now, Gina.

  • 19
    linda domaschenz
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    @John2066 On the ball still/again, she is Austalias and soon to be the worlds biggest bludger.Start paying some tax Gina, Twiggy, Ian and the rest of you lot. The boom may be big in $ for you but there’s no or little flow on. FIFO workers have the highest rate of divorce. l ocals can’t afford to live in their home towns ( some rents exceed $2,000 pw) for a prefab. Ok, it (the boom or kaboom) has created jobs and maintained export quotas exports but at what expense? No training, they poach skilled tradesmen from rural areas and leave us high and dry. Towns devoid of young men gone bush. Other industries short on staff so wanting 457s. How many apprenticeships has Gina on her books? I shudder to think. But at a rough estimate far less per any other business by a long shot.
    Anyone done a true appraisal of the effect in WA re housing, tradesmen, CUBs- I doubt it. the only appraisal is whats being loaded on boats. Not to mention what’s been done in The Pilbara/Kimberley re aboriginal heritage, ancient artworks or is that Twiggies holes and ports. Try the Burrup Burrup peninsula. Most of the equipment to mine this land is imported, they don’t even support own manufacturing base or little. These giants are fed by greed and it is blatantly obvious. Gina, fix up your mess at home before you decide to mess up our lives too with your grab on the national free press. One sad lonely woman with too many $. Remember the caricature of Scrooge in the vault swimming in his sea of $, that’s our Gina. Where are you Donald, Daisy, Heuy, Duey and Louie!
    This situation makes me mad, damn mad.
    John, you are right biggest bludgers the world has ever seen! But at least SB may get the FIN for $2 pffttt. Calling Conroy- where are you, minister!

  • 20
    linda domaschenz
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Pardon Me, just had to get that off my chest!

  • 21
    bluepoppy
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Gina Rinehart’s reputation is well known to Australians but it doesn’t matter if it is Rinehart, a Smith, Jones or John Citizen the point is clearly made about media ownership laws.

    It would be ironic if Australia mimicked China’s press landscape through free speech and free trade principles whereby an elite and powerful group controlled information.

    Given the Murdoch press already owns (approx) 60% of the print media in Australia it is high time these media ownership laws were addressed. A democracy is all the better for a diversified press.

  • 22
    joe2
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    What if Gina manages to get Andrew Bolt up as editor of The Age?

  • 23
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Joe2, I think you might have worked it out. With Andrew Bolt as editor of The Age, Melbourne needn’t bother taking on Sydney ever again. Melbourne would have the whole world in awe. Bring it on!

  • 24
    Karen
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Margaret Simons and Alan Kohler, you have provided very interesting pieces on GR’s media play.

    While I agree that GR wants to exert influence by using a paper and TV station as a megaphone to expound her world view, in order to persuade folk out there to vote accordingly it is, alas, all for the purpose of making even more money. For example, if she can persuade people that a mining tax is an evil thing because it gets in the way of her keeping an extra $5 billion (as one poster has suggested), then there would be political pressure, arising from the polls, for any timid government to water down or abolish the tax.

    Unfortunately, we are witnessing someone who, arguably, can’t self limit and thinks nothing of getting on the back of a truck with paspaley pearls swinging off her neck to say that the mining tax should be axed (and by extension arguing that the same burden be transferred, yet again, to ordinary wage earners and small business owners).

    And btw, can anyone out there suggest why many of the richest citizens of this country are morbidly obese? They are literally eating themselves to death before our very eyes, which is a very unsavoury and unpleasant experience to witness.

  • 25
    milton louis
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Great clarity thanks Ms Simons.
    Bludgers, magnates, diversified press. Agreed.
    What is missing is perhaps personal individual responsibility for action.
    We are in an age where the actions of few may be directly measured and identified as to the detriment of many.
    Here we are discussing in a public forum the sovereign wealth of this nation, coupled with political interference.
    How is it remotely justifiable by reasonable individuals, that proceeds from mining the nations wealth be spent bending the direction of government?
    These individuals and corporates “are not breaking the law” say the weak and fearful, honourable representatives and complicit media.
    Quite right, indeed, so let us set about reviewing and perhaps changing the law. Our dear opportunists will have spent the cash, or shovelled our wealth before the reactionary and marginal government acts.
    The reinharts and murdochs and ‘goldmen with sacks’ must be held to account on an ethical basis.
    But I fear the motivation is power, greed, malicious individualism and even youmanism.
    There is little respect for law or common wealth with their ilk.
    What is bred in the bone does come out in the flesh.
    A new measure, currency and transparency is required in this age.
    A measure against the individual, the footprint, the consequence.
    A measure against the cone of responsibility. a taste of humanism perhaps?
    Hmmm.

  • 26
    Lord Barry Bonkton
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Don’t worry Karen , Gina an Clive have already dug their graves with all the Huge holes in W.A and QLD . We just have to wait for nature to take its toll, on these walking heart attacks .
    Kerry Packer found out that Hearses don’t have roof racks , so they cannot take it with them.
    They would be on top of the list of the “Revolution ” hit list , when Aussies work out what’s happening to our country. Time to build a Guillotine Structure.

  • 27
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Reckon she’ll try to buy Crikey - to garner more influence over “public opinion” - to shut it up and stifle the expression of views alternate to the one’s she likes? Like Limited News does?
    Imagine “public perception, caught between Murdoch and this hard case”?
    Who knows she could make her “Rhinestone Cowboy”, Cousin Jethro, editor - as soon as he graduates Ox Ford and they build the bridge, so he can get to work? Or “Hendo”?

    And then, on TV (ABC) we get “Henderson – Conservative Op-ed Hack” (sought out, with his “experience”, for his “prognostication”) singing the praises of her latest move?
    News Hour knows how to present a balanced news service, why is it so hard for so many “outlets” to do something similar in this country – serving the public, to educate them on what is happening, in a balanced impartial way, rather than serving the agenda of vested interests?

  • 28
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Is “Mr Whirlpool” a “fridge magnate”?

  • 29
    Observation
    Posted Thursday, 2 February 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    And if GR does grab an influencing role in all of this, what real difference will it make? Its hard to find articles in any of these papers contradicting what she is pushing anyway!

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