The debate about Gina Rinehart trying to take over Fairfax Media is more about paranoid conspiracies than it is about reason.
Let’s get a few things out of the way.
1. Gina Rinehart is quite probably a terrible person. Given that we’re supposed to be living in some diabolical age where we rightwingers insidiously control the media to the detriment of all the bleeding heart hippy lefties, it seems strange that every time I read a newspaper or watch the news, I see her presented as a thoroughly distasteful person. Her legal battles with her family. Her misjudged attacks on government policies to tax her. Her dreadful poetry. I don’t think there’s a person in Australia who is more routinely portrayed as a cashed-up bogan.
2. I, on occasion, have the very great fortune of having articles published by New Matilda which is an independent media outlet. I could be — perhaps correctly — accused of having a bias towards independent media. In my defence, I’ve had articles published by them defending Murdoch’s News Ltd much to the strange reaction of The Wheeler Centre (I’ve always wondered if they got beyond the title of the article).
Despite (1) and (2), I’m not that worried about Rinehart owning Fairfax Media or having a position on the company board. My arguments are twofold: first, there’s a fairly significant precedent to wealthy people owning Fairfax Media (the hint is in the name of the company…); second, I don’t buy into the self-published fanfiction that the media really is a necessary instrument of a healthy democracy.
The Argument from History
Fairfax Media is named after John Fairfax. John Fairfax was an English lord who came to Australia and bought up the Sydney Morning Herald. He then began to consolidate a media empire in Australia. He used his enormous wealth to bankroll Australian media. It’s fair to say that without him and Keith Murdoch, the Australian media landscape wouldn’t have been as well serviced as it has been.
When Fairfax died, his son inherited the company and so on and so forth until John B Fairfax sold off his 10 per cent a year or two ago.
Wait… A year or two ago?! Yup, the tradition of wealthy Australians owning a slice of Fairfax Media has only recently been broken. Rinehart, far from breaking with the traditions of Fairfax Media, is being entirely consistent with them.
We have a generation of people who are, it is said, extremely well-informed about the past 24 hours, but are totally ignorant about anything that came before it. During the 1980s and 1990s, a group of wealthy guys (including Australia’s own Christopher Skase) duked it out in the Australian media landscape, buying up companies and instigating board room brawls (and some insane public brawls: ‘Goanna!’). While it’s entirely true that I wasn’t born until after a lot of the scuffles, it’s also true that there were very few people crying foul that wealthy people owned the media. Wealthy people have always owned the media. Citizen Kane isn’t futuristic science fiction.
Fairfax Media has a bit of a history of being run by shadowy cabals. It’s ridiculously difficult to find good information about a number of people currently on Fairfax Media’s board. Needless to say, they’re wealthy people.
Rinehart’s problem is that she’s too well known and that she’s too well known for being a mendacious cashed-up bogan. People don’t seem to have had too much difficulty accepting any wealthy person not named Murdoch owning media companies. Nobody thought it was the end of impartial media as we knew it when Packer owned a good portion of damn near everything. As such, it doesn’t seem credible for the left to get so worked up about Rinehart’s venture.
The Argument from The Media Isn’t A Democratic Institution
This argument is significantly shorter. Our democratic system is a framework of checks and balances. Three branches (or estates, if you will) of the State try to maximise their power in relation to the other two. The result is that none of them has completely free rein, unfettered by restrictions.
The media, on the other hand, continually asserts that it is necessary for a ‘true’ democracy to function: the Fourth Estate. Any restriction on the media’s power and influence is an attack on democracy itself.
It’s utter garbage.
If they really were a Fourth Estate, they would be subject to restrictions like the other branches of the State. We don’t let any democratic institution go unbridled and untamed.
Media companies are companies, nothing more and nothing less. Rinehart’s decision to buy a seat on the Fairfax board isn’t an attack on democracy, as some of the more histrionic and paranoid commentators have argued, but a result of market forces. Rinehart wants something which she can buy.
In order to have a serious discussion about media ownership, we need to stop romanticising media companies. Some people might run their companies for entirely altruistic reasons (hi, New Matilda guys), but we can’t begrudge other people for running their companies for commercial reasons.
For those two reasons, people should be a little bit more measured in their apocalyptic rantings about the media. The media existed and thrived under wealthy people buying things for commercial reasons. It will do so again.
On a bit of a side note, it’s interesting to see what else the Rinehart faux-takeover shows about the Australian media.
If the wealthiest woman in the world can’t start up a successful media company or buy into a failing media company, what hope have the smaller players got? A fundraising drive for New Matilda, for example, seems to have come up short on subscribers. There’s a weird incongruity between ‘Freak me sideways, wealthy people are owning media companies!’ and ‘I’d rather drink an extra pint a month than support a small media outlet.’
Also, I have an argument that part of the problem with the current media landscape is that we haven’t had good cross-media ownership laws. In a nutshell, there were restrictions on owning both print and television media companies… sort of. It wasn’t easy to do. While it failed to create any sort of meaningful media diversity, it did kill off any ability for media companies to cross-subsidise news content with entertainment arms. If you’ve ever wondered why news is more infotainment than analysis, (high quality) opinion, and — to be frank — news, it’s because people who consume serious news in Australia is vanishingly small. It’s policy wonks, policy elites, and crazy people (that Venn diagram has a lot of overlap). We’re not a profitable group (see the above about struggling media outlets). In order to make money, they’ve got to appeal to a broader group than us, thus we get ‘Is your cat actually Hitler reincarnate?’ I was expecting new media to break this mould, but it seems really reluctant to go down this road. Even Gawker Media has been selling off assets (although one of those assets was pretty much a pr0n site, so no great loss).