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Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch: a study of power in the media

Australia’s wealthiest person, Gina Rinehart has bought shares in Fairfax Media. Should we be worried if she buys a controlling interest in the company that publishes the Age, Sydney Morning Herald and…

Murdoch and Rinehart could soon own almost all the significant newspapers in Australia. EPA/Michael Reynolds/AAP/Tony McDonough

Australia’s wealthiest person, Gina Rinehart has bought shares in Fairfax Media. Should we be worried if she buys a controlling interest in the company that publishes the Age, Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review?

I think we should.

It would mean that all the significant newspapers in Australia would be controlled by two very wealthy individuals, Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart. In both cases, they bring with them an overarching political ideology which will inevitably affect their newspapers and through them, influence their readers.

This influence is not some comic book affair of the owner nightly dictating individual headlines and particular articles. Rather, owners choose editors and they in turn shape the coverage day in and day out.

In my recent book, Rupert Murdoch: an investigation of political power, I examine Murdoch’s relationship with his editors. I quote former Murdoch editor Eric Beecher who described Murdoch’s method as “by phone and by clone”.

Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil described unpredictable and sudden phone calls from Murdoch, often punctuated by long silences. Neil also made the common sense point that Murdoch “picks as his editors people like me who are generally on the same wavelength as him: we started from a set of common assumptions about politics and society, even if we did not see eye to eye on every issue and have very different styles.”

David Yelland, an editor of the Sun, said Murdoch editors ultimately end up agreeing with everything he says. “But you don’t admit it to yourself that you’re being influenced. Most Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that something has happened … and think, ‘What would Rupert think about this?’”

One former News Corporation executive, Bruce Dover, described his editors’ behavior as a sort of “anticipatory compliance”. Another argued Murdoch is “less hands-on than people assume … It’s not done in a direct way where he issues instructions. [Rather,] it’s a bunch of people running around trying to please him.”

A similar kind of relationship between Gina Rinehart and her editors would almost certainly develop if she bought a controlling interest and was able to choose board members and senior management. The values and culture of the newsroom would evolve in response to this, with “difficult” journalists departing and the remaining ones understanding the limits of dissent and exercising self-censorship.

Murdoch and Rinehart are also similar in that their interest in the news media cannot be reduced to dollars and cents. Both see them as vehicles for exertion influence on public opinion. Rinehart’s investment in Fairfax cannot be explained in terms of seeking a dividend or profit. She has explained her interest in the news media because of “its importance to the nation’s future”.

On Murdoch’s part there have been multiple instances of him keeping unprofitable newspapers alive, largely for reason of influence. This is so in the case of the Australian, the Times and the New York Post.

Murdoch and Rinehart are both conservatives but of a quite different type. Murdoch’s was an early supporter of “small government”, low tax, deregulation and privatisation. After his Wall Street Journal purchase, his company ran a worldwide advertising campaign with the triumphant slogan, “Free markets, free people, free thinking”. Murdoch is a fervent supporter of US hegemony, symbolised by his global campaign in favour of Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Rinehart is an Australian nationalist and follows a narrower self interest, including passionate opposition to new taxes for the mining industry. She supports “Special Economic Zones” in Australia’s north where temporary labour can be imported and mining companies can get tax breaks. One of her supporters in this quest is John McRoberts who was once also an adviser to Pauline Hanson. Murdoch’s papers campaigned against Hanson and her ideas.

But Murdoch and Rinehart are closer on the issue of climate scepticism. In 2011 her company Hancock Prospecting sponsored the Lang Hancock lecture at Notre Dame University in Western Australia which was delivered by the roving climate sceptic, Lord Christopher Monckton. In the case of Murdoch, he has now reverted to climate scepticism after momentarily issuing warnings about its “clear catastrophic threats”.

The agreement of both Murdoch and Rinehart on climate issues suggests a bleak outlook for the coverage and debate on climate in Australia’s two major newspaper networks.

Some see hope because, they say, newspapers are “legacy media”. But I think they are wrong. Newspapers still generate most original news. Most “online news” is produced either by newspapers or public broadcasters.

Newspapers employ the most journalists and enable specialist coverage of politics, health education and other areas. In particular, for historical reasons political coverage is central to newspapers in a way it isn’t for television, which produces entertainment not editorials. Most important of all, many academic research studies have shown newspapers are a decisive agenda-setter for radio and TV.

So both Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch are right. They understand the nature of political power and the significance of newspapers. And we may be the worse off for it.

Join the conversation

7 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Lang

    Retired geologist and engineer

    Why is there a stream of articles complainng about Murdoch media and Ginha Rinehart, but no articles complaing about the Left's total control of the public broadcaster (ABC) and the Fairfax media, and many other outlets like Crikey, Get Up! and many others?

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    1. David Glover

      Communicator

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Daryl and Peter, I don't think this is about "left" vs "right". It's about a media proprietor influencing their output to further their commercial and political ends.

      "The Left" is an amorphous idea (like "The Right"). At best, each is a loose grouping of diverse people with some shared (and, in both groups, some hotly disputed) views.

      Rupert Murdoch is one man, running one business, with some very specific business goals. His opposition to the NBN and action on climate change is driven by…

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  2. Nic Stuart

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Dear David,
    Absolutely correct, of course. By the way, I'm surprised to note a mistake that must have crept in with subbing. Fifth last par reads "the Lang Hancock lecture at Notre Dame University in Western Australia which was delivered by the roving climate sceptic, Lord Christopher Monckton." Surely you mean "raving"?
    Nic

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  3. Michael Romano

    Senior Systems Engineer

    I only became aware of Murdoch's political influence when articles arose criticising the NBN. The NBN is built with the best technology currently available to us. You cannot beat fibre for long distance and high bandwidth networking. Yet we still see people being fooled by the misconception that wireless is an acceptable alternative or that old copper can be used to achieve comparable results for less money. From a technical point of view, the debate and doubt that has been created regarding the NBN is frustrating to watch. Even from an economic point of view, the NBN will help small businesses and that has to be good for the economy. As such, I have become very skeptical about anything published by News Corp. The political bias regarding the NBN at least has warped people's opinions about what's good for them when they have little chance of knowing any better. We will be worse off without the NBN.

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  4. Daryl Mather

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I love it when the left start whining because somebody dares to challenge their world damaging views. The fraud that is climate change, the crippling effects of dependency governance (just look at the Victorian economy), or the belief that success is evil...

    Where are the complaints about the bias on the ABC? Or the Age, or The Labor-Greens violent attacks on our ability to speak freely?

    These points all miss one very important fact... Murdoch's papers sell well because people enjoy reading them. They touch a chord with Aussies in particular. And commenters like this want an uneven playing field where the failed policies of the left are given free and unquestioned reign over public opinion.

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  5. Joseph Ting

    logged in via Facebook

    That Rupert Murdoch wields hefty behind the scenes influence over contemporary Australian political discourse comes as no surprise. The fierce pro-Abbott/ anti-Labour stance disseminated by his media interests aim to provide uplift to the political fortunes of Abbott and the Coalition. This is not a new development. Despite Murdoch amassing his forces behind the Coalition in the last Federal Election, Labour only just managed to scrape home first past the post. That close run race, Murdoch’s press…

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  6. David Nicholas

    Freelance Journalist

    Professor McKnight, you concerns about Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart and controlling editorial content is correct, in my view.

    The strategy for Ms. Rinehart, the Packers and Lachlan Murdoch seems to be to combine newsrooms between television and the print media, in this case the Ten Network and Fairfax. Financially this is a very smart move.

    Living for many years in the US, it came as a surprise on my return that Fairfax did not own or held major shareholdings in television not to mention…

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