EVERY SINCE the Phage dropped Bristow, the smiles to be drawn from that newspaper have been largely accidental. Today is no exception. With Ginaphobia running rampant and office copy machines no doubt churning out bulk copies of CVs destined for the ABC recruiting office, business writer Elizabeth Knight has melded boastfulness with dread to produce some remarkable assertions about her (current) employer. For example:
For the mega-wealthy, control of Australia's most influential newspaper group, Fairfax, is like an insurance policy against political decisions that run against their commercial interests.
Influential? With whom? A doomed federal government? The sprout suckers and semi-literate humanities undergraduates who dominate its online comment threads? The weary janitors who must throw out all the unclaimed free copies of the paper left daily in organic bicycle shops and free-trade tofu emporiums?
Just in time, too. Hall [an investor and market player] was getting more concerned about the media group's advertising and readership numbers in December and January.
At least someone is concerned about Fairfax’s commercial decline. Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood might get around to expressing an interest sooner or later, but probably not until he has finished counting last week’s, and every week’s, 50K pay cheque.
For Rinehart and for Forrest the rationale is simple. Invest several hundred million to gain control of Fairfax, and wrest the political agenda from the government. In Rinehart's case this would involve using the editorial influence of Fairfax to get rid of Labor and its expensive (to her) taxes - the minerals resource rent tax and the carbon tax - an outcome that could ultimately save billions.
Again with that influence business! What influence does Fairfax wield? The Coalition knows it can expect nothing from the Phage or Silly but more of the luvvy-dovey same. On a good day, those papers might concede that Tony Abbott is not going to install a hotline to the Vatican in the Lodge, but that would be a very good day indeed. As to the other side of politics, if influence is re-printing talking points while shouting “Amen!” from the sidelines, well that is influence.
But this may not be a fool-proof plan because taking control of the editorial agenda is not necessarily that easy.
Really? The Greens found it to be not in the least challenging.
Thus, for Rinehart, waiting just one year from now would see her take effective control of Fairfax and the highly regarded editorial integrity of trust, built up over 150 years, could be sacrificed for a few hundred million pieces of gold.
Shareholders might not object to seeing the odd bit of gold coming their way, not being quite so smitten as the column’s author with fantasies of “highly regarded editorial integrity”. Would that “integrity” include having an unauthorised poke about in a Labor-voter database, now the subject of a police investigation? Or would it be the betrayal of a source, as was confirmed this week when Judge Lucy McCallum released her long-delayed views on the matter of Helen Liu and former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon.
To do this, she would need to inject a few user-friendly editors into the Fairfax newspapers including, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review
Users? Who are these users of whom Knight speaks? Could it be the papers’ former readers, the ones who walked away long ago? What a tragedy it would be if the Silly and Phage were to fill their pages with stories, columnists, entertainments and investigations of interest to the public, not merely topics that excite the passions only of the ardent luvvie in the adjoining newsroom cubicle.
Rinehart has already had some success in achieving influence through the acquisition of 10 per cent of Ten Network last year. Not only was she readily granted a board seat but the politically like-minded News Corp journalist, Andrew Bolt, was given his own program, some say through Rinehart's influence.
Well that is the party line on Bolt and Knight is sticking to it. At Fairfax the wan attribution “some say” is considered an entirely adequate source – even though Channel 10 chieftain Brian Long has repeatedly stated, and on the record, that Rinehart did not play midwife to the birth of the Bolt Report. Actually, Knight might learn a thing or two from that Sunday morning programme – like the wisdom of giving consumers content which commands their interest. Fairfax should try it sometime, even at the risk of forfeiting a few invitations to Brunswick vegans’ dinner parties.
The curious thing about author Knight’s authorised view of Ms Rinehart’s interest in Fairfax is that it overlooks the very real possibility of some active boardroom stewardship turning the company around. What if The Age were to go tabloid and hire some editors who are aware that there exists in Melbourne a considerable number of people who do not dress in black, fellate their bicycles or revere Bob Brown as the Buddha of Bellerive? The Herald Sun grows worse by the week, a southern iteration of what Clive Palmer on Lateline last week observed to be the editorial approach of the Courier Mail – a daily version of celebrity-fixated women’s gossip rags. The Herald Sun once held a generational stranglehold on what might be termed Middle Melbourne but now seems determined to trash that legacy.
A reconstituted Age could fill that void and thereby gain a genuine measure of the influence which Knight repeatedly cites. Sadly, the prism of conceit obscures her ability to recognise the word’s true meaning, just as it has long delayed a much-needed examination of Fairfax’s editorial and commercial conscience.