Mining magnate turns to media
The world’s richest woman, mining magnate Gina Rinehart, is at the centre of the biggest shake-up in the history of the Australian media as it battles for survival, writes ANGELA LONG
THE EXPLOSIONS on the Australian media scene would do justice to the most skilled mining detonation engineer.
Since late June, massive restructuring has been announced, with job losses in the thousands, editors shown the door, broadsheets going tabloid and an overall painful transformation for the giants of the newspaper scene.
These blasts of change have an eerie echo in the red dirt of Western Australia, where a massive new mine is taking shape at a place called Roy Hill. And as the dust clears, standing in the centre of both situations is a figure in white, with a deceptively soft voice and an ambition as hard as the iron on which her fortune is based.
It is claimed that Gina Hancock Rinehart (58) is the world’s richest woman with about A$18 billion (€ 15.3 billion) net worth. She is the chief executive of Hancock Prospecting Proprietary Limited (HPPL), a mining conglomerate based in the ore-rich territories of the Pilbara region.
Fuelled by opposition to the federal Labor government’s taxes on mining and incoming carbon credit scheme, she wants to be the most powerful woman in media as well in her homeland.
Rinehart owns 10 per cent of the popular Ten television network and has been campaigning for control of some of the country’s best newspapers.
Ostensibly, her reason has been the plummeting share price of Fairfax Media, the quality publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age (Melbourne’s broadsheet daily).
Rinehart is the protagonist in a saga which encompasses media, mining, politics, business ethics and corporate systems – and has a rattling truth-beats-fiction back story around the central character.
The latest development appeared to show Rinehart backing down as she sold A$50 million (€42.4 million) of shares in Fairfax.
She had ramped up her stake in the ailing media company to more than 18 per cent (under Australian corporate rules, a full takeover bid is compulsory once a stakeholder has 19.9 per cent of a company).
Rinehart, however, retreated to 15 per cent after being warned that board member insurance would not apply if she owned more than that.
She does not yet sit on the Fairfax board, but she is lobbying hard for three seats. With that would come power to appoint – and fire – editors. Fairfax this week appointed Jack Cowin, a restaurant chain owner who has described himself as a friend of Rinehart, as an independent director.
As she scaled down the shareholding, there might have been a few sighs of relief in the corridors of Fairfax’s swish headquarters, toothsomely situated at water’s edge in Darling Harbour, just across from the iconic Harbour Bridge.
Fairfax has seen enough turmoil recently, with 1,900 job losses and the closure of two modern printing presses announced as the company heads for a “digital first” (and possibly, only) strategy. But, as the savvy pointed out, she hasn’t gone away. That would not be the Rinehart style.
Georgina Hancock Rinehart was born in February 1954, the only child of Langley George Hancock and his wife Hope.
Hancock was a squat, tough man with horn-rimmed glasses and a 1960s suit, as chunky and weather-beaten as a nugget of pure grade iron ore.
A legendary figure, he is said to have declared he had little interest in books, save for a fascinating tome titled The Western Australian Mining Act.
The son of a pioneer farmer in the West Australian outback, his destiny lay in a harvest of a different sort. In 1952, accidentally according to myth, he came upon a vast deposit of iron ore in the state’s Hamersley Ranges.
Although it took years to persuade a mining giant – Rio Tinto – to develop the multiple seams, by the early 1960s he and his partner were reaping the rewards of a contract that pledged 2.5 per cent royalties from the mine – in perpetuity.
Hancock Prospecting was on its way. (For a full and stylish account of Hancock family history, see Nick Bryant’s recent essay in the Australian current affairs magazine and app, The Monthly.)
Gina idolised her father, but they fell out, and she eventually saw him in court, suing over company control in 1988.
In a bookends manoeuvre that is still being played out, she is now in dispute with three of her four children over a family trust which Lang set up on the birth of his first grandchild, John, in 1976.
The trust was due to pay millions out to the heirs last September – until their mother moved to defer the happy day to 2058.
In between times, there was the Stepmother Saga. After Hope Hancock died of cancer in 1983, the family’s housemaid, Rose Lacson, comforted Lang Hancock and within a short time was Gina’s stepmother.
Rose, who was born in the Philippines (39 years after Lang Hancock), seemed to model herself on Imelda Marcos with her lavish fashion sense and expensive decoration of the house Hancock built for her, touchingly named Prix d’Amour.
But after Hancock died in 1992, Gina Rinehart took Rose to court, claiming that she had hastened his death. The action failed after it was revealed that Rinehart’s side had paid witnesses to fabricate or exaggerate stories of Rose’s possible evil designs on her wealthy husband.
These are all sideshows to Rinehart’s main purpose in life, to secure her wealth (and that of HPPL) and put mining and its progenitors on the pedestal of Australian life where she believes they belong.
Fellow mining magnates Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and Clive Palmer are part of her campaign to repulse the naysayers in Canberra and the left-wing wowsers and woosses of the press who want to cramp their style.
Their philosophy is summed up by Rinehart’s lobby group, Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision, and now Palmer is proposing to start a new news platform, staffed with refugees from Fairfax, to be called The Rage – a joke on the name of The Age, the venerable Melbourne broadsheet.
Margaret Simons, journalist and director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University says: “We are speculating about Gina Rinehart, because her motives are far from clear . . . In her background and history, there is no sign of the subtlety and sophisticated understanding of political cultural issues that might make her a good media proprietor.
“Rather, she seems keen to push her own view of the world.”
Rinehart herself, apart from the penchant for legal action, has been a private person, only going public to lead rallies against the mining tax and now to threaten media.
Not all of the criticism of her is fair and it is not only her wealthy mining buddies who believe that.
“A lot of it is sexism, and fattism,” said one high-placed veteran journalist, referring to continual jibes about Rinehart’s girth. “They wouldn’t make these snide comments about a man.”
While she – appropriately garbed in expensive white linens – portrays herself as a white knight riding to the rescue of beleaguered media houses, the chattering classes of urban Australia feel this sentiment is tongue in cheek.
Rinehart, hard hat worn over her hard head, can call the shots in the Pilbara as Roy Hill comes on stream, but Canberra might prove a tougher seam to mine.
MEDIA MELTDOWN PRINTING PRESS CLOSURES, BROADSHEETS TURNING TABLOID AND JOB LOSSES
Australian newspapers are in the throes of a digital revolution, which has seen printing presses closed, venerable broadsheets shrink to tabloid, state and local papers lose their identity and about 3,500 jobs to go.
Who reads the papers? Circulation across the board is about 18 million copies a day. The two giants, which publish the influential big-city titles as well as man regional papers, are Fairfax and News Limited, the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. News Ltd has 70 per cent, Fairfax 30 per cent.
Fairfax Media publishes the Sydney Morning Herald (print circulation about 200,000 daily, with online visits vastly outstripping print readership) and the Age, beloved institutions among a certain stratum of society. News Ltd publishes the Australian as well as titles in all the capital cities. So far it is untouched by Gina Rinehart – but then, it has Rupert Murdoch.
Rinehart also holds a 10.2 per cent stake in Network Ten Network, a national television company. There is nothing in legislation to prevent her stake in Fairfax.
What Rinehart says about the media
“We are certainly in support of journalist integrity and accuracy” (via a statement from HPPL).
What the media says about her
“Gina Rinehart’s interest in the media has nothing to do with journalism. It is about influence. Like Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart is used to getting what she wants. Ignore her at your peril.”
– Bruce Dover, head of the Australia Network and author of a book on his former boss Murdoch.