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Rinehart’s media ambitions: bad news for coverage of climate change

There’s not much money in newspapers, but plenty of chances to promote your views. AAP

News that Gina Rinehart has reportedly attained a 12.8% stake in Fairfax Media (and is seeking just under 15%) is bad for the Australian media environment: it potentially puts yet another billionaire in a position to influence what gets published as “news” in this country, and more importantly what doesn’t.

What’s more, it is very, very bad for media coverage of climate change and the physical environment in which we all live. Rinehart is a confirmed opponent of the carbon tax, with a track record of successful activism - upholding the interests of mining billionaires in thwarting the original mining super profits tax and contributing to Rudd’s downfall. Her latest bid signals a growing appetite for political influence.

Fairfax journalists must also be rather worried at the prospect. Her recently acquired directorship on the board of Ten Holdings (with 10% of the company shareholding) reputedly aided the launch of the TV career of tabloid warrior/columnist, Andrew Bolt, providing a soap box for right wing commentary and coalition politicians.

A 10% shareholding in Ten Holdings gained her a place on the board. A similar shareholding in Fairfax Media could do the same trick for her there (though one of Fairfax’s biggest shareholders says it wouldn’t support a board spot), making her the company’s biggest single investor. Fairfax Media has a history of rejecting bids for power by individual directors. But Gina Rinehart’s rapidly growing billions - which look set to make her the world’s richest woman - could be the acid test.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that rich people resent paying tax. But the pathway to media power and political influence that Rinehart is embarking on to remedy this irritant will have serious ramifications for us all.

Opposition treasury spokesman, Joe Hockey, says he is “comfortable with the country’s richest person increasing her stake in Fairfax Media”. But many of the public will be feeling decidedly uncomfortable. They have good reason, given Rinehart’s recent activism against both the mining tax and the carbon tax, measures taken by a Labor government in the public interest.

Rinehart’s close relations with Coalition politicians - three of whom accompanied her to a lavish wedding in Hyderabad last year - is further evidence of her aspiration for political influence, if any was needed.

Given the parlous state of print media revenue streams, her bid is certainly not financially motivated. But the additional media power of Fairfax board membership would position Rinehart well to form sweetheart deals for “her lobby group”, Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision . These might include locking in Coalition climate change policy toward a low-to-no-action agenda with taxes on mining magnates reduced or counter balanced in other ways.

The 2011 Lowy Poll indicated that the Australian public is losing conviction that urgent action is needed on anthropogenic climate change. This is even as climate scientists offer evidence that time for remedial action is all but gone.

Adaptation, not mitigation, is now the focus of many government agencies. But this shift seems largely lost on the general public, if the Lowy Poll findings are anything to go by. The passing of the carbon tax should have marked a turning point in the public conversation, moving us all more in the direction of “what” we can do, rather than pointing us in the opposite direction of “why” do anything. Rinehart’s business interests undoubtedly lie with that backwards vision.

That an unelected person can so expediently buy her way into a position of political influence says as much about the shortcomings of our regulation of media ownership as it does about Rinehart’s ambitions. Senator Conroy’s comments regarding the need for a public interest test on media diversity could yet produce some public benefit.

Front-page news coverage of climate change to date has tended to be dominated by politics and controversy rather than by the science or the alternative courses for action. But environmental journalists employed by Fairfax newspapers - businesses that pride themselves on their editorial independence - have consistently reported the broader issues and the ramifications of climate change (though these stories rarely make the front page).

It would be nice to think that public support for Fairfax’s culture of editorial independence will help the company to resist any attempts by Rinehart to call the shots. But it is going to be left to the current board members and senior staff to play that role, an unenviable one by any measure.

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