The bad news is piling up for Australia’s Fairfax Media. Yesterday, a week after the announcement of sweeping changes including 1,900 job cuts, the publisher saw its three top editors resign. Today, billionaire Gina Rinehart threatened to dump the nearly 19% stake in the company she acquired last Monday if she is not offered three seats on the board of directors “without unsuitable conditions.”
A video of several senior Fairfax Media journalists speaking about the indispensability of editorial independence has gone viral on Twitter, amidst widespread speculation that the condition Reinhart finds most objectionable is the requirement that board members sign the company’s charter of independence – a pledge that prevents the board from intervening editorially in the newspapers, and from hiring or firing staff.
The richest woman in Asia and the owner of private mining company Hancock Prospecting, Rinehart has been campaigning for board representation at Fairfax for several months, according to The New York Times. Last Monday, after announcements of profound upheaval caused the share price to plummet, Reinhart cast herself in the role of “white knight” by increasing Hancock’s stake in Fairfax from 12.6% to 18.7%.
Today, in the section labeled “G. The Media” of an 11-page letter posted on the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC)’s website, Hancock expressed on Rinehart’s behalf that “unless director positions are offered without unsuitable conditions, Mrs. Rinehart is unable to assist Fairfax at this time,” reported the New York Times. Reinhart’s withdrawal would further degrade the company’s value, which slipped to a record low today before closing at 55 cents per share; down from $5 five years ago.
On ABC’s The World Today, business editor Peter Ryan said that Reinhart’s threat to dump her shares “ups the stakes” in what he labels her “boardroom war with the Fairfax board and its chairman Roger Corbett.” According to Ryan, Corbett “says, and has repeatedly said, that the board will not be bullied.”
In the video, made by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, Fairfax investigative journalist Kate McClymont says that upholding the editorial independence charter means: “we tell the whole story regardless of any commercial, political or personal interests.”
In an editorial posted to the Guardian’s website on Sunday, editor in chief Alan Rusbridger held up the Australian news landscape, in its present turmoil, as a “vivid lesson for why media choice matters.” He called what is happening at Fairfax “a threat to the independence of the country's main alternative to the huge Murdoch domination of the press” (Fairfax is the second-largest newspaper publisher in Australia, after Murdoch’s News Limited) and asserted that the media company was “under siege from the multibillionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, who has extremely pronounced views on climate change and politics in general, and is insistent on her right to interfere with editorial policies.”
Section “F. The Climate Change Debate,” of Hancock’s letter on behalf of Rinehart posted to the ABC site includes the statement: “To lessen the fear the media have caused over these issues, Mrs. Rinehart suggests that the media should also permit to be published that climate change has been occurring naturally since the earth began, not just the views of the climate extremists.”
The three editors who resigned their positions as the editorial leaders of Australia’s two oldest broadsheets, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age yesterday were the Herald’s editor in chief Peter Fray, its editor Amanda Wilson, and the Age’s editor in chief Paul Ramadge.
Wilson, who was the first female editor, reportedly said of her decision to resign: “When I first saw the [restructure] plan, there was one glaring omission – the role of editor that I currently have." She added that the time had come to "hand over the reins to someone else and let them lead this transition," reported the Guardian.
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