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Jun 28, 2012

Mayne: are Bolt and McCrann writing Rinehart's Fairfax lines?

McCrann and Bolt have become self-appointed chief leaders in Gina Rinehart’s attempt to seize board and editorial control of Fairfax Media.

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As each day passes, it looks increasingly like New York-based News Corporation was involved in an attempt to conspire with certain conservative politicians and a rogue staffer in the independent speaker’s office to try and prematurely bring down an elected minority government. And if you think the James Ashby affair looks bad for News Ltd, what about the ongoing performance of that rogue cell embedded in its Melbourne office, best mates Andrew Bolt and Terry McCrann?

This duo have long argued that the government should fall and are now openly destabilising their main media competitor, which happens to be a more moderate contributor to the national conversation.

McCrann and Bolt have become self-appointed chief leaders in Gina Rinehart’s attempt to seize board and editorial control of Fairfax Media in a move that would be an absolute disaster for the owners of 81% of the company and a huge boon for News Ltd.

It goes like this. On June 19, McCrann claimed Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett had “made a catastrophic mistake in trying to close the board door to Gina Rinehart” and predicted he would now be booted out just like the way James Packer disposed of Echo Entertainment chair John Story. On Tuesday, he wrote the following:

“To the extent that Fairfax has a future, it is now a Gina Rinehart future. It is now very clearly, to use a modified old ockerism, Gina or the knackery.”

All the while, McCrann has been deriding Fairfax’s editorial independence and yesterday we got some specifics with this:

In 2008 then Age CEO Don Churchill wrote to staff thanking “everyone who has been involved in organising, promoting and writing about tomorrow night’s big event, Earth Hour.”

There was also a reference to Andrew Bolt’s various Earth Hour jibes. Apart from this Media Watch piece in 2008, few people are seriously pushing the line that Earth Hour has somehow compromised 150 years of independent journalism at Fairfax. It wasn’t the board that directed any journalists, but rather management as part of a marketing partnership that proved highly successful.

While Rinehart no longer has a spokesman — Alexander Downer’s business partner Ian Smith found her too strange to handle — Hancock Prospecting’s John Klepec released an extraordinary statement yesterday, which included the following:

“We are prepared to acknowledge the Fairfax Media Board Governance Principles exist … we note that the FMBGP has been repeatedly over-ridden in the past — for example by ordering journalists to support Earth Hour.”

Bolt and McCrann are clearly helping write Rinehart’s lines in a cack-handed attempt to destabilise their biggest competitor. Doesn’t that look similar to Steve Lewis’ inappropriate dealings with James Ashby and various political opponents of Peter Slipper?

Then you have the extraordinary situation at Ten Network Holdings, one of the three employers of millionaire Bolt along with News Ltd and John Singleton’s 2GB. Bolt has previously denied Gina Rinehart was instrumental in delivering him Australia’s first Fox News-style national platform on a mass-market commercial television network, despite what fellow traveller Gerard Henderson said on Insiders last week. Indeed, Bolt wrote the following on February 8:

“I’m not sure what Rinehart plans with Fairfax, but a score of grim journalists has warned that she’s got shocking form. Didn’t she force Channel 10 to give me my own show when she joined its board?”

“What tosh. I worked with Ten before Rinehart bought into it, and was signed up for The Bolt Report by then acting CEO Lachlan Murdoch, once my chairman here at News Ltd.”

That may be true, but The Bolt Report has performed poorly and should have been axed months ago, just like Alan Jones’ ranting efforts on Channel Ten were cut after just a few weeks in 1993.

So why isn’t Ten taking a commercial approach to Bolt’s failures, along with its disastrous new breakfast show fronted by controversial right-wing Kiwi Paul Henry? Could it be because a cabal of right-wing billionaires have taken control of the company without making a full takeover bid?

That’s certainly what McCrann was implying when he wrote the following on June 20 in predicting that James Packer would team with Gina Rinehart to also take control of Fairfax:

“Rinehart is the perfect partner for any such move on Fairfax. And especially as Corbett — and CEO Greg Hywood — have all but, if unintentionally, laid out the red carpet.

“Corbett could have brought Rinehart into the boardroom. Rejecting her on the ground that she would not sign the ‘non-interference’ charter was not just silly but an invitation to war.

“She has put serious money into the company, and ideology aside, is perfectly entitled to decline to be shackled, in terms of ensuring the company is not mismanaged.

“The very exercise of so arrogantly antagonising her invited not just her move to near 20 per cent, but invited other players like Packer to join the game. At a very simple level, didn’t Corbett notice what happened at Ten?”

Indeed Terry, we all have. The story of Network Ten is minority shareholders getting completely screwed as a gaggle of billionaires collaborated to take control without paying a premium.

James Packer was the chief conductor at the start when he bought 18% and then provided financial support to his mate Lachlan Murdoch to take half. The lads paid more than $1.40 a share and after  gross mismanagement, including the hiring of Bolt, the stock is now at 50c. Almost $1 billion of value has disappeared.

Seeing as Lachlan personally owns radio stations and is on the board of News Corp, the dominant newspaper and pay-TV company in Australia, he appears to be in breach of Australia’s cross-media ownership laws. ACMA is currently investigating this complaint lodged by Avaaz last month.

This hasn’t stopped the Murdochs and their mates on the Ten board who yesterday announced that the CEO of Lachlan’s private company Illyria, Siobhan McKenna, had been appointed a director, representing the combined Packer-Murdoch interests. Clearly this was approved by Rinehart and her fellow Ten director and Fairfax strategist, Hungry Jack Cowin.

Based on all the disasters unfolding at competitor Ten, the Fairfax board should firmly tell Rinehart to stay away with her value-destroying strategies. If she wants control she’d better line up an additional $2 billion debt facility and launch a full bid, which would immediately trigger a “fit and proper” test for media owners from the federal Parliament.

Rinehart would struggle to pass such a test given all her controversial dealings down the years, not to mention suing media outlets to force source disclosure, oppressing her children and spending up big to keep open-court proceedings hidden from the public.

As The AFR pointed out today, it would also be good if she finally shelled out cash to some of the families who lost loved ones digging up asbestos for her father at Wittenoom before he sold out to CSR in 1943.

Wittenoom was the original source of the family’s wealth, not that you’d ever read that in a column by Bolt or McCrann, the only two senior journalists in Australia who are seriously arguing this oddball media novice would be a good and suitable Fairfax proprietor.

Stephen Mayne — Journalist and Founder

Stephen Mayne

Journalist and Founder

Stephen Mayne founded Crikey in February 2000, and has remained as a contributor since selling it in 2005. He’s currently a City of Melbourne councillor, shareholder advocate and broad campaigner for transparency and accountability across the media, business and political sectors.

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20 thoughts on “Mayne: are Bolt and McCrann writing Rinehart’s Fairfax lines?

  1. Frank Campbell

    “a gaggle of billionaires collaborated to take control”

    Well they would, wouldn’t they? Jurassic monsters howling over media carcasses…

    We all know newspapers are an indulgence of the super-rich. “The Australian” has always run at a loss, for instance. It exists only because Murdoch wants political influence to favour his commercial interests. And to add a shred of respectability to the unsavoury lineage of the tabloid Dirty Digger.

    Billionaires buy out millionaires: Murdoch has just purchased Kohler et al. Crikey detests Murdoch, so it’s an interesting contradiction…

    Modest millionaires buy what they can afford: Beecher sold a pile of magazines to hapless Fairfax for $20 million and then bought Crikey-in-the-garage for a million from middle-class battler Stephen Mayne…

    But the internet model is remarkably similar to the old newspaper hierarchy. Just cheaper. The vaunted “independence” lasts only until the next fat chequebook arrives, or the proprietor tires of the sport. And that “independence” is also compromised in small internet operations like Crikey and the plethora of Right and Leftwing sites by tight ideological lines. Crikey is anything but transparent or accountable, there is no “conversation”, national or otherwise. Journalism is limited by tiny size and Crikey’s politics. Limitations also derive from its narrow inner-urban base, both class and geographic. Being a creation of minor media players, it has an understandable if irritating obsession with big media. On the environment Crikey is barren- everything is subordinated to global warming orthodoxy. Propagandists such as Hamilton are promoted relentlessly. There is no admission that a Left/Green critique of “climate change” and its policies exists. On the contrary, the tone is pure Bolt: derision.
    Consequently Crikey is blind to its modest share of responsibility for the collapse of progressive politics in Australia.

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