Australia’s Media Ownership Debacle

Georgia Lewis 

Image © Mohamedn

Fairfax has been a presence on the Australian media scene since 1841 when John Fairfax bought the Sydney Morning Herald. Since then, successive generations of the Fairfax family have owned the company. Their power and influence over the Australian media landscape is not new. In a week where there has been a twin outcry over Australia’s richest woman, mining magnate Gina Rinehart, owning an 18.67% stake in the company and trying to demand three board seats, and concurrently the loss of 1,900 jobs at Fairfax, the closure of printing presses, the merging of newsrooms, the shrinking of broadsheets to tabloids and the suggestion that print editions will become online only with more paywalls going up.

The latest news is that Ms Rinehart won’t get the three seats – or indeed any seats on the board- or the right to hire and fire editors, as per her demands. She refused to sign Fairfax’s Charter of Editorial Independence. As a multibillionaire, she knows she can try and buy more influence in the form of a bigger stake in Fairfax. Her £55 million share spending spree is small change. It is also no secret that she feels Fairfax papers, most notably the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age, are anti-mining and that the paper’s party line is that mining companies should pay more tax. Editorial staff at Fairfax have insisted their journalists are independent and not influenced by commercial constraints.

But for how much longer? Will Ms Rinehart keep buying more and more shares? It seems the current Labor government has no issue with this. Stephen Conroy, the breathtakingly ineffective Communications Minister opined that Ms Rinehart is entitled to turn Fairfax papers into “the mining gazette” but but warns she can’t “trash” the Fairfax brand for other shareholders. Surely, turning the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age into the mining gazette is a trashing of the brand of the highest order? He went on to tell a radio programme: “I’m not sure government can do a lot when it comes to maintaining the independence of journalists and editors from boards of companies.” 

Still, the weak response of the Federal government comes as no surprise. Basically, Gina Rinehart’s ambitions at Fairfax are not anything new for the Australian media. For too long, media ownership has been heavily concentrated amongst a small group of very rich people and successive governments have not really done a whole lot about it.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited – which is also in the grip of mass job loss rumours in Australia – owns newspapers across the nation, magazines, a music company. News Limited in Australia joined forces with Fairfax, West Australian Newspapers and the Harris Group to create Australian Associated Press to distribute and sell on news to other outlets. Fairfax also owns Rural Press Limited whose newspapers can be found in pretty much every regional centre of the country. The late Kerry Packer  ruled Australian Consolidated Press and Channel 9 as part of his Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL) empire – his son James inherited the business but has stepped down from the Executive Chairman role. PBL, however, still owns massive swathes of the Australian media industry along with casino interests, which is the part of the business James is more interested in. Apart from a few other big players, it’s a pretty incestuous industry and it comes as little surprise that Reporters Without Borders ranks Australia as 30th in their annual press freedom index. The UK is at 28. Once again, Finland and Norway top the list.

For too long, any attempts to broaden media ownership or limit how many media organisations one person can own have been thwarted in Australia. Hardcore capitalists would say that in a free market economy, there should be no limits as to who can own what. But a functioning democracy needs a free press and this is not served well by putting profit over independent journalism. Gina Rinehart’s threat to media independence is not shockingly new. It is just a sad continuation of what has been happening, unfettered since 1841.

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