THE world's richest woman, Gina Rinehart, has publicly threatened to sell her stake in Fairfax, Australia's oldest media company unless she is allowed direct influence over editorial decisions.
The Australian billionaire mining magnate, a staunch conservative who does no media interviews, has branded herself as a "white knight" trying to rescue the ailing – and liberal-leaning – Fairfax Media.
Mrs Rinehart recently moved to a 19 per cent stake in the company, just short of the 20 per cent mark at which she would have to launch a formal takeover bid. She has been vying for three board seats but has insisted that she should not have to abide by the company's charter of editorial independence.
In a statement to ABC Television, her company, Hancock Prospecting, said Mrs Rinehart was a potential saviour of the company and had started buying shares after its three biggest mastheads suffered long-term circulation declines.
"HHPL [Hancock Prospecting] has hoped that Mrs Rinehart may be viewed by the board as a successful business person and necessary 'white knight' with mutual interest in a sustainable Fairfax," the statement said. "However unless director positions are offered without unsuitable conditions, Mrs Rinehart is unable to assist Fairfax at this time."
Mrs Rinehart's foray into the media – she today separately increased her stake in a television network – has been compared with similar moves by her late father and mentor, the West Australian mining pioneer Lang Hancock, who started his own newspaper because he felt the local press was not supportive of his attempt to open new mines.
He used the newspaper to express other views, such as his belief that nuclear explosives should be used along the coast to clear the way for artificial harbours.
But the moves by Mrs Rinehart have raised concerns about her potential to use her media interests to influence public debate.
In a letter to Fairfax's Melbourne newspaper, The Age, a range of prominent Australians including Malcolm Fraser, the former prime minister, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty and the actor Geoffrey Rush today urged the Fairfax board not to abandon the charter.
Mrs Rinehart, a climate change sceptic and fierce opponent of Julia Gillard's new taxes on carbon emissions and mining, said she was concerned about the "lack of understanding in the media on this issue".
"To lessen the fear the media have caused over these issues, Mrs Rinehart suggests that the media should also permit to be published that climate change has been occurring naturally since the earth began, not just the views of the climate extremists," the statement said. "It is a fact that there have been ice ages, then periods of global warming to end the ice ages, and these have occurred naturally, including due to the earth's orbit, and not due to mankind at all."
Mrs Rinehart's ultimatum to Fairfax was believed to have prompted a further drop in the share price today to record lows. Some analysts have speculated that if she sells her stake in Fairfax, the price will further drop and could pave the way for her to make a hostile takeover bid.