Like all nine of the “outside” candidates running for the WA News board at the EGM on April 23 in Perth, I want Kerry Stokes to vote for me when it comes to filling those two additional vacancies that will probably arise when the incumbents perform their suicide pact. This story probably won’t help.

Whilst much of what Stokes said yesterday is true, there were a couple of troubling elements in his breakfast speech hosted by WA Business News, one of the few print rivals to The West Australian.

The first was the presence of Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, the controversial founder of Fortescue Metals, who glowingly endorsed Stokes and threatened to bankroll a rival publication if he is not successful.

Twiggy has a “whatever it takes” approach to business. He was a big client of Brian Burke and ASIC is currently attempting to ban him from being a director.

As the richest bloke in Australia, this makes him a very powerful figure in WA and especially Perth – the world’s most isolated city. Therefore, it is very important that those who control the state’s monopoly newspaper are independent of Twiggy.

Stokes is clearly friends with Forrest and the two will no doubt have a burgeoning commercial relationship as Fortescue’s operations utilise those big yellow machines that Stokes’ private company provides in WA through the Caterpillar franchise.

Many people, including everyone in the WA Government, believe the incumbent WAN board should be sacked for failing to reign in Australia’s most cavalier editor in Paul Armstrong. It was an important day yesterday because Stokes finally nailed his colours to the mast by directly attacking Armstrong’s performance, especially the way he is seemingly at war with everyone.

However, if Stokes succeeds, the new board should sit down with The West Australian’s journalists and the MEAA to hammer out an editorial independence protocol.

The conflicts between The West Australian’s editorial coverage and the Stokes commercial interest will be huge, so the best way to avoid this is for Stokes not to be chairman. So far, he is silent on this question. Steve Harris is the best alternative for the job, having run both The Age and the Herald Sun in Melbourne.

The biggest conflict would revolve around iron ore development and ownership. Stokes is mates with Twiggy, but already has a huge relationship with BHP in WA. He’s also got the Caterpillar franchise in China at a time when the Chinese Government are pouring billions into WA.

If Stokes is perceived to control editorial at The West Australian he’ll have all sorts of people coming at him for favours, so it would be a whole lot easier if he was not associated with the paper’s editorial positions.

* Check out this Today Tonight story that Stokes’ Seven Network put to air recently about foreign investments in WA.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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