For a newspaper company once blessed by the classified ads rivers of gold, but now facing a sinking sales and share price, the intervention of the world’s richest woman may seem like good news. But that is not how Fairfax Media, Australasia’s leading media company, sees the arrival of Gina Rinehart.
Rinehart has decided that being a reclusive mining magnate from Perth does not mean you can’t also try your hand at being a media mogul. Maybe she figures she couldn’t do any worse than that one from Adelaide.
But those on the board of Fairfax seem to disagree. As do many of the journalists at the company’s three mastheads, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. Rinehart has purchased 19% of the company and is now demanding 3 seats on the board. The board is refusing on the ground that she is refusing to sign up to the ‘Charter of Editorial Independence’, a quirk of Fairfax first adopted in the later 1980s.
The fact that Rinehart is not keen to sign the charter has just confirmed the worst suspicions of those who believe she is trying to buy influence in the national debate. This follows the failure of her previous attempt to affect the national debate, by penning a poem that can now be seen on a large rock in a small town in her home state of Western Australia. The poetic policy persuasions include:
“The world’s poor need our resources: do not leave them to their fate
Our nation needs special economic zones and wiser government, before it is too late.”
Her defenders point out that other media companies would have no such restriction on the board’s capacity to shape the paper. Certainly Rupert Murdoch would never sign up to such a charter, no matter what ideals he occasionally pays lip service to at the odd inquiry. But even the perception that Gina is influencing editorial could have a deleterious effect on one of the few remaining assets in the Fairfax arsenal – its reputation for independence. The board is citing its readership’s passionate support for the charter as a reason for refusing Rinehart’s rise to the board, while journalists have also come out passionately against the takeover.
This is partly a response to Rinehart’s special interests, which do not stop at the desire to see the term ‘special economic zones’ in verse. Known for her climate change scepticism she has been a key funder of talks and tours from denialists, including support for the tour of renowned tarsier impersonator Not-Quite-a-Lord Monckton.
Nor would most of her family be appearing as references on her CV. She is currently in bitter legal wrangles with three of her four children. Indeed, as a further sign of the deep trust they have for Rinehart, the Fairfax board directors have requested that she give a guarantee not to sue fellow directors if allowed on to the board. Clearly overkill given they aren’t even related to her.
With Fairfax’s share price having fallen 85% in 5 years some argue that the company could do with Rinehart’s proven expertise in making money. The debate revolves around whether media expertise is different to mining expertise. In late 2010 Reinhart also bought into television station Channel 10 and was appointed to the board in late 2011. So far the station has not clearly benefitted from her business acumen, but it is too early to judge.
Even without Rinehart on the board things are bleak at Fairfax with 1900 job losses just announced in the latest restructure and the share price still in the doldrums. In written answers to a recent news story Rinehart’s spokesperson dubbed her a ‘white knight’ for Fairfax. Currently Fairfax appears to be Monty Python’s black knight, losing limbs, but certainly not willing to surrender to this white knight.
Craig Reucassel is a television and radio comedian from Sydney, Australia. He is best known for being a member of satirical team The Chaser