The world's richest woman is poised to take control of Fairfax Media, one of Australia's oldest and most-respected publishing companies. Newspaper editors are fighting back, concerned that this indomitable billionaire will compromise the editorial integrity of their work.
Gina Rinehart, an iron ore mogul who is estimated to be worth about AUD$29.2 billion, has tripled her wealth in just the last year; it's quite possible she'll one day surpass Mexico's Carlos Slim Helú as the richest person on earth. Her forays into the media industry -- she began by purchasing a share of Australia's television network Channel Ten in 2010 -- put her in the same league as the notorious billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Fairfax, which owns The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Australian Financial Review, is going through tough times. They're cutting 1900 positions within three years and closing two big printing presses. The Age and the Herald are slated to shrink in size, and will adopt a format that resembles popular tabloids. They may eventually stop printing altogether. Furthermore, online content will now be subject to a pay wall.
With share prices down, Rinehart has swooped in to increase her holdings at Fairfax to about 19 percent. Further gains could enable her to take over two or even three chairs on the editorial board.
But Rinehart's opponents point out that the iron ore magnate has obvious commercial interests; editors fear they may be powerless to stop their publications from adopting a pro-mining agenda.
If Mrs. Rinehart wants to turn it into the mining gazette ... the 80 per cent of shareholders who will see the share price fall need to know that that's what's behind it, said Stephen Conroy, Australia's communications minister.
Rinehart herself has been characteristically mum, but John Singleton, an advertising tycoon and a longtime family friend, fired back on her behalf.
If you trash a brand day after day and put on the front page that mining should be compulsory and you should eat iron ore for breakfast, then the circulation would go down along with the credibility. We don't need lectures from bloody politicians about branding, he said to the Guardian.
He went on to support Rinehart's right to a seat on the board. You get an Australian who's been very successful and has nearly 20 percent of the company and she doesn't get any board seats? Who the hell do they think they are? he said.
Rinehart is an interesting figure. She sees mining as Australia's central industry, even its saving grace. And although that may sound self-aggrandizing -- especially to her many critics -- she's not too far off. While other developed economies all over the world are feeling the pinch of economic crises and recessions, a global demand for iron and coal has kept Australia relatively prosperous. Rapidly developing, densely populated countries like China and India have become Australia's biggest customers.
This makes Rinehart a legendary, if polarizing, figure in her country. She grew up in the industry; her father, Lang Hancock, first discovered huge deposits of iron ore in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. At that time, the Australian government had an embargo on the export of ore, and Lang Hancock was the one who lobbied to overturn that law. Thus began Hancock Prospecting, which Rinehart now owns.
Though she is technically an heiress, Rinehart's vast wealth is almost entirely a result of her own efforts. Her current fortune is 386 times greater than the worth of the assets she inherited upon her father's passing in 1992, according to The Independent.
It's not just business savvy that has made Rinehart famous; she is well known for her political views as well as some salacious episodes in her personal life.
Although her personality is not often on display -- she is generally quiet and refuses to give media interviews -- her legal battles with her own family members have been widely publicized. Rinehart has fought tooth and nail to keep her late father's fortunes out of the hands of his young widow and former maid Rose Porteous, and she has also deferred her father's trust fund payouts to her own children, sparking bitter familial infighting.
Politically, Rinehart is a staunch conservative, taking after her father. She is in favor of corporate tax breaks and the easy acquisition of cheap foreign labor, and against environmentalists whose conservation efforts stand in the way of her business.
This makes her a poor fit for the Fairfax editorial board as it stands, since both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age lean to the left.
Most alarming for the papers' journalists are reports -- still unconfirmed -- that Rinehart will refuse to adhere to the Fairfax Charter of Editorial Independence. Though she hasn't said anything about her intentions publicly, many fear that she might use her buying power to turn bypass long-held editorial protocols.
This possibility provoked a response from high levels of the Australian government; Wayne Swan, Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, said that everyone should be very concerned at this turn of events, according to the Telegraph.
She certainly has a commercial right to do what she has done, but it appears to be that she will go a step further, not respect the charter of independence, and reserve her right to direct journalists with instructions that follow her commercial imperatives.