Problems with the Fourth Estate – Part 1

As a university graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Arts, I have fairly strong opinions about journalism as a profession and the industry itself. Because of my interest in the the media, I can’t help but notice several problems that journalism as a whole is facing in this country. The one which I am going to focus on in this post is none other than the richest woman in Australia, Gina Rinehart.

It’s not uncommon for very wealthy people to acquire media companies as part of their financial empires. In fact, according to Dr. Harminder Singh from Deakin University, the last few years have seen a considerable increase in media takeovers both in Australia and around the world. However, Rinehart’s interest in media assets have constantly raised alarm bells in the journalism community.  Her first foray into media ownership came in late 2010 when she purchased a 10% stake in the Ten Network which led some commentators to question her motives. A few months after this, conservative commentator and columnist Andrew Bolt was given his own show on Channel 10. Though many including federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy claimed that the creation of this show was done under the orders of Rinehart, these claims were denied by Chairman of Ten Network Holdings Brian Long in February 2012. This may be so. However, acquiring a stake in Channel Ten and the creating of a conservative TV show are just the beginning of the story.

In June 2012, Rinehart’s company Hancock Prospecting increased its stake in  Fairfax Media, the company which own such publications as The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review, to 18.7%. Shortly after, Rinehart made a bid to not only to gain three seats on the Fairfax board but also to become the board’s deputy chairman. The Fairfax board informed her that she could only have these seats if she agreed not to interfere with the editorial process of any of Fairfax’s publications as dictated by the board’s charter. On June 27 the Fairfax board decided to reject Rinehart’s application for membership of the board, citing her apparent refusal to commit to not interfering with the editorial processes of its publications. Whether this was the actual reason for the board’s refusal is subject to claim and counterclaim made by both parties.

As I have shown here, the past few years have seen Rinehart show a very keen interest in acquiring media assets. However, it is not just the board of Fairfax which she has had a dispute with. Just last week, Rinehart’s attempt to subpoena Walkey Award-winning journalist Steve Pennell were dismissed by Justice Janine Pritchard. Rinehart was attempting to force Pennell to reveal his sources and hand over all notes regarding Hancock Prospecting and a legal battle with her son John Hancock. Justice Pritchard cited Western Australia’s shield laws that protect journalists from being forced to reveal sources. As well as this attempt, Rinehart is now attempting an identical subpoena on another journalist, Adele Ferguson. Ferguson is a columnist for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald who published an unauthorised biography of Rinehart earlier this year. Clearly, Rinehart does not want the general public to know too much about her business affairs.

Rinehart’s dealings with the Australian media show a clear pattern; she is attempting to have the media publish and broadcast her views and her views only. This trend becomes rather scary when put into the context of ANDEV (Australians for Northern Economic Development and Vision). Founded by Rinehart herself, ANDEV is a lobby group which aims to raise political awareness for the development of Northern Australia. ANDEV’s website claims that “Governments are making Australia less competitive by putting in place new taxes that hit North Australia hardest, by tying entrepreneurs in red-tape and placing upward pressure on input costs for Northern industry.” Somewhat understandable coming from a mining lobby group. However, it then goes on to say “If government gets out of the way, we can build a better future for North Australia.” That last line sums up Rinehart’s intentions in a nutshell. Rinehart has always been very critical of any government effort to place any form of tax on the mining industry. In fact, she has always been very critical of the Labor government, period. Whether the two are directly related or not, it was only after Rinehart bought a 10% stake in the Ten Network that Andrew Bolt, a vehemently conservative right-wing, anti-Labor commentator, was able to get his own show. The same can be said about her apparent refusal to promise not to interfere with the editorial processes of Fairfax’s publications leading to her not gaining her desired seats on the board. Her efforts at buying into segments of the Australian media and taking legal action against individual journalists are a clear sign that her ultimate aim is to control the Australian media for the purpose of influencing voters with her political views.

From what you’ve just read, it would seem that the Australian media is in a bad way. However, despite Rinehart’s efforts to reign in the Australian media, there are pieces of good news scattered across this whole story. When Rinehart took Steve Pennell and Adele Ferguson to court, the Australian journalism community stood by their colleagues. Even the editors of the West Australian wholeheartedly supported Pennell during his court case. While Rinehart and many other wealthy business leaders would love to see the media spout their political views to influence Australian voters, it is the journalists themselves who must write the stories. Therefore, so long as journalists have the will to stand up to people like Gina Rinehart and continue to write stories despite protestations from the wealthy and powerful, the Australian people can be somewhat safe in the knowledge that their news is not entirely corporate propaganda and spin.

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One Response to Problems with the Fourth Estate – Part 1

  1. Pam says:

    any more blogs coming?

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