Former editors of The Age have rubbished Gina Rinehart's provocative claim that Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett and his predecessor Ron Walker overrode the paper's charter of editorial independence by instructing an editor how to do his job.
The mining billionaire made the allegation in her Friday open letter to Corbett in which she told the ex-Woolies boss to resign unless he lifted the company's share price by 60% by November. In the scathing letter, Rinehart accuses Corbett of hypocrisy for denying her seats on the board on the grounds that she has refused to comply with the editorial charter:
"I don't recall you even sending me that charter, and very little time or correspondence was spent on discussing it.
"We did, however, discuss and I note again that you as a director, along with the then-chairman, in fact overrode the charter of editorial independence and directed the then editor of The Age to address a bias believed to be causing a decline in The Age's circulation ... Are you now taking a different position and saying that the charter of editorial independence should come before the interests of shareholders?"
There have been three editors-in-chief of The Age since Corbett joined the Fairfax board as a non-executive director in 2003: Michael Gawenda, Andrew Jaspan and Paul Ramadge. All three told Crikey this morning that they never experienced editorial interference from board members during their tenure.
"She's completely confused, I don't know where she is getting her information from," said Jaspan, who edited the broadsheet from 2004 to 2008. "Her claims don't bear any credulity.
"I did not get any editorial direction from board directors."
Gawenda said: "No, it never happened to me. I think it's bullshit frankly. As far as I'm concerned it didn't happen and I very much doubt if it did happen.
"Ron Walker and I had a conversation or two while he was chairman but it was never, 'do this' or 'do that'. It was more, 'Can I help you with anything?' If a director had come to me on an editorial matter I would have to them to go away and talk to the CEO. And that's the way it should work."
Ramadge, who until last week had been The Age's editor-in-chief since 2008, said: "I really don't know what Gina is referring to. I had full independence throughout my editorship."
Last week, Rinehart's spokesman John Klepac claimed that Fairfax board members have overridden the company's governance principles in the past by "ordering" journalists to support the Earth Hour initiative in support of climate change action.
A Fairfax spokesperson told Crikey that Rinehart's claims were "plain wrong". "Everyone here is scratching their heads about what she is on about," they said.
In her open letter, Rinehart does not identify the issue that was supposedly affecting the paper's circulation. Her company, Hancock Prospecting, has not responded to Crikey's request for clarification.
Some within Fairfax believe the mining magnate had been thinking of Bruce Guthrie's reign at The Age, when he came under pressure to soften the paper's combative stance towards premier Jeff Kennett. Corbett was not on the board at this time.
Walker told The Weekend Australian on Friday that "the board as one never ever sought, either directly or indirectly, to interfere with editorial during my time as chairman or during my time as a director. The current chairman Roger Corbett always supported these views."
During his tenure as chairman, however, Walker was indeed accused of inappropriate editorial interference. As Media Watch reported in 2008, a reporter who wrote a story on bloated attendance figures at the Melbourne Grand Prix -- which Walker then chaired -- was summoned to the editor-in-chief's office for a 90-minute meeting with a Grand Prix executive and lawyer. A long clarification was then published in the paper, despite the original story containing no significant factual errors.
The issue of editorial independence is also complicated by the fact that the Fairfax CEO also serves as a board director.