Billionaire Rinehart's media control bid reveals corporate influence

February 2, 2012
Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph takes a dig at its corporate media rival’s image problem by lampooning i

The mainstream media’s “impartial and balanced” fig leaves began to slip on January 31, revealing their corporate genitalia for all to see.

Australia’s richest person, billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, had begun buying more shares in Fairfax Media, increasing her stake towards 15% and raising questions about media impartiality.

Fairfax journalists scrambled to report the news, tying themselves in knots over how much to admit about the corporate nature of their media outlets and whether Rinehart could have any influence on editorial input.

Tony Boyd, writing in the Fairfax-owned Australian Financial Review, lauded “the Fairfax family tradition over more than 150 years of providing balanced, quality and independent journalism”.

Yet in the same article, he admitted: “However, this is not to say that a Fairfax board seat would be without power and influence. As the publisher of influential newspapers and the country’s most popular website,, the company’s directors do have political influence at both state and federal level.”

So Fairfax is balanced and independent, yet also has political influence at state and federal level?

Some commentators suggested Rinehart’s action was purely a business move, but the Financial Review’s deputy editor, James Chessell, questioned this.

“Consider the following,” he wrote. “Rinehart’s fortune was recently measured at $20 billion. Assuming this is accurate, the mining magnate is trying to spend less than 1% of her wealth upping her stake in Fairfax. It’s a tiny investment for her in a sector that at present offers far less attractive returns than mining.

“So it seems safe to assume that Rinehart is not doing it for the money or wider strategic reasons. It seems more likely she enjoys the cachet that comes with owning media and hopes her investments can in some way further her political and economic views.”

The mask was slipping.

In a similar vein, Chessell’s Fairfax colleague at the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael West, wrote: “Her prize is the two metro mastheads and the monopoly financial daily whose value, these days, is more strategic than financial.

“Australia’s richest woman has raided Fairfax for its clout, not for its investment potential.

“Rinehart control of the Fairfax Mastheads could have a dramatic influence on politics in this country.”

The main story, however, was either being missed, or — more likely — omitted. Fairfax is already run by directors with interests in mining. And energy. And defence. And big pharma. And retail. A list of Fairfax’s board of directors on Bloomberg’s Businessweek website reveals those interests.

As communications minister Stephen Conroy put it: “All that’s really changing is that a different wealthy individual is taking a strategic or ownership position in some media.”

The fact is, all media outlets are biased, but few will admit it.

Some non-corporate media, such as Green Left Weekly, will freely declare that they are biased in favour of workers and human rights.

GLW even declares its bias in its masthead, making it one of the most honestly-named media outlets in the world.

Corporate media, on the other hand, go to great lengths to claim they are impartial and balanced because it is not a good look to admit that, as corporations, they are naturally biased towards corporations.

The fig leaf is usually held in place by including what seems to be an opposing view in almost every article. Yet in reality, the opposing view presents no real alternative.

As intellectual Noam Chomsky has pointed out: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

For Fairfax, the problem with Rinehart is that she is too honest about her bias towards corporations.

As the Financial Review’s Lisa Murray wrote: “Rinehart has made no secret of her political agenda. She is vehemently opposed to the minerals resource rent tax and believes income and company taxes should be lowered across the board. She believes concessions should be given to businesses operating in a zone across northern Australia and has lobbied against the introduction of the carbon tax. Her views are clearly expressed via the right-wing group Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision, which calls on its website for the industry ‘to take the fight to the government and media’.”

If only she was more subtle, like Fairfax’s other directors, there would be no problem. The SMH’s senior business columnist, Adele Ferguson, admitted as much, in an article headlined “Rinehart seeks influence, but Fairfax must be seen to resist this iron lady”.

“Perception is reality,” wrote Ferguson, “and the company will have to make sure it doesn't look as if she is wielding influence.”

It’s all about image management, see?

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