Saturday 21 October 2017

New breed of media barons buy into power in Oz

Darragh McDowell

Last month, Gina Rinehart, the world's richest woman, launched a corporate and editorial coup at Fairfax Media, one of Australia's largest media companies.

Overnight, she increased her stake in the firm from 12.5 per cent to nearly 19 per cent to become the single largest shareholder in the group -- just short of the 20 per cent that would oblige her to launch a formal takeover bid.

She is demanding three seats on the eight-member board and the right to hire and fire editors at Fairfax titles, while refusing to endorse the group's principles on editorial independence.

The Fairfax board is fighting back, telling Ms Rinehart that if she wants that kind of control, she'll have to up her shareholding to 50 per cent.

In response, Ms Rinehart, who once advocated the use of atomic bombs for exploration, is threatening the corporate equivalent of a nuclear strike -- dumping her entire shareholding and tanking Fairfax's stock price in the process, which would clear the way for a hostile takeover bid.

Ms Rinehart's motives aren't difficult to divine. Her massive personal fortune comes from mining, and she is a climate-change denialist. The Australian Labour government's introduction of new mining and carbon taxes has already drawn fierce criticism from her and organisations she sponsors -- including a paean to the mining industry, which was quickly dubbed the "universe's worst poem".

Last year, she helped pay for a visit by Christopher Monckton (famous in Ireland for joining Jim Corr's conspiracy theory tour and bellowing "withdraw" repeatedly on the Late Late Show) to one of her think tanks. In his speech, Mr Monckton advocated that the super-rich use their wealth to buy editorial control over various media outlets, and urged the creation of an Australian version of Fox News.

Ms Rinehart appears to be following this gameplan. While claiming that she is acting as a "white knight" investor on behalf of shareholders, Fairfax's titles are generally read by those of a left-liberal persuasion.

The board has already pointed out that eliminating editorial independence and granting effective editorial control to Ms Rinehart would totally destroy the credibility of Fairfax.

The other major player in the Australian media market is, of course, Rupert Murdoch, who controls around 70 per cent of Australia's press. The prospect of virtually the entirety of the country's print media coming under control of two people, both with reputations for using their media outlets to advance their political and business interests, has alarmed the government.

Deputy prime minister Wayne Swan was quoted as saying: "I think that Rinehart's attempt to assert editorial control has very bad impacts for our democracy."

In an age of declining revenues, newspapers are vulnerable to corporate takeovers from moneyed interests looking to convert them into propaganda platforms.

Those concerned by the scandals unearthed by the UK's Leveson inquiry will be watching the Fairfax affair to see if the new aspiring press barons can be held off.

Sunday Independent

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