Analysis

Could Gina Rinehart move to a full Fairfax takeover?

ginamodule

Money Talks. And no one in Australia has more than Gina Rinehart, a billionaire twenty times over. But can she use that money to buy influence over two of Australia's most famous newspapers?

The Power Index reckons the answer is no—or not yet—despite her overnight raid on Fairfax Media, which has landed the mining magnate just under 15% of the group's shares.

No doubt Big G will be offered a seat on the Fairfax board, but we very much doubt she will be allowed to sway or change the editorial policies of the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age, however much she throws her weight around.

Kerry Packer had a similar stake in Fairfax for much of the 1990s, but, apart from scaring the pants off several Fairfax journalists whom he was keen to sack, it never really changed how the paper was run, and he eventually sold out. More recently, John B Fairfax dumped a similar stake because he had little influence over the company.

The question may then be, "Will Gina move to a full takeover?" Certainly, she could afford to do so: with Fairfax capitalised at $1.75 billion, Rinehart could buy the company ten times over and still have change. But she would surely face a huge public outcry if she tried to take full control.

The Power Index can see Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam joining hands again on stage at Darling Harbour, as they did in the early 1990s to oppose a takeover of Fairfax by Kerry Packer. And we can also envisage a fierce campaign by Fairfax journalists and sympathetic politicians.

They would argue that, as a matter of principle, Australia needs a free press and a free market for ideas; and that it is not good for democracy if a rich person or organisation can take over that market to enforce their own views. They would also argue that the principle applies whether it's Gina Rinehart, a big trade union, the Labor Party, the Greens or Mother Theresa who is seeking to buy influence.

We don't know for sure that this is what Rinehart is after, because she never talks to the press. But soon after she spent $165 million to buy 10% of the Ten Network in November 2010, her inner circle let it be known she was seeking a greater voice in national affairs, and a more sympathetic hearing for the mining industry.

Gina is famously a sceptic on global warming and a bitter opponent of a carbon tax or mining tax, and she has devoted time and money to the cause. It was Rinehart, remember, who jumped on the back of a truck at last year's anti mining tax rally in Perth with fellow mining billionaire, Andrew Forrest. It was also Rinehart who funded climate change denier Lord Monckton's recent Australian tour. Rinehart revived the Lang Hancock lecture at Notre Dame University in Fremantle (which she sponsors) so his Lordship could give it.

Over at Ten, Gina's spending has paid dividends. She has helped install Andrew Bolt, whom she greatly admires, in a new Sunday morning show. And she may (or may not) have supported Kiwi shockjock, Paul Henry, as host of Ten's new breakfast program. (The former NZ National Party candidate who has told viewers that homosexuality is unnatural, starts this month.) But the difference between Ten and Fairfax is that Ten's other big shareholders, James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch are also big Bolt fans, and Packer at least would share some of Rinehart's political views.

Gina won't have many friends in the Fairfax boardroom, especially if she's trying to get the papers to push a more conservative line.

Meanwhile, her investments in Ten and Fairfax (she bought 4% of Fairfax in January last year at around $1.40) have not paid dividends in a financial sense: she has lost around half her money on both these investments. But she won't care about that: to her, $120 million-or-so is just small change.


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