Addressing a libertarian think tank in Perth last July, the British climate change sceptic Christopher Monckton urged Australians to create a home-grown version of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. Lord Monckton's visit was part-funded by one of his biggest Australian fans, Gina Rinehart, the multi-billionaire iron ore magnate. A year on, Ms Rinehart – the country's wealthiest individual – is on the verge of becoming its newest media mogul, a prospect sending a chill through newsrooms, boardrooms and the corridors of government.
The notoriously secretive 58-year-old has acquired a seat on the board of the Ten Network, where her favourite journalist, the ultra-right-wing Andrew Bolt, has his own show. And she has become the largest shareholder in Fairfax Media, Australia's oldest newspaper group, sparking fears that she wants to use her stake to promote her own commercial interests.
Ms Rinehart has demanded three Fairfax board seats and refused to endorse a charter of editorial independence. Seventy per cent of Australia's newspapers are already owned by Mr Murdoch. Now there is a real prospect of most of the remainder – including the liberal-minded Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age – being controlled by someone who would out-class even Mr Murdoch, some believe, in her reactionary views and appetite for meddling.
Fairfax journalists – already shocked by the announcement of a shake-up that will see one in five jobs disappear, and by the departure this week of three editors – are horrified. Ms Rinehart appears to want "to make the papers into a propaganda platform for mining companies and climate change deniers", said David Marr, a respected writer at the SMH.
Ms Rinehart never gives interviews. But her values – pro-free market, cheap foreign labour and tax concessions for mining, and anti-government regulation, red tape and climate change science – are well known. So is her antipathy towards the Labor government, particularly its introduction of a carbon tax and a tax on mining's "super profits".
Unlike Mr Murdoch, who founded his empire on the Adelaide News, which he inherited 60 years ago, she has no love of newspapers. "She regards journalists as either socialists or communists," says Paul Barry, a journalist and author. "I think she would be considerably worse than Rupert Murdoch as a proprietor, not least because she's coming into a newspaper [group] with an entirely opposite stance to the one she would like it to take."
The stand-off between Ms Rinehart and Fairfax hardened yesterday, with the tycoon attacking the board's "abysmal track record" and the company chairman, Roger Corbett, again rebuffing her demand for directorships. The board had received "tens of thousands of emails" from readers and shareholders supporting its position on editorial independence, he said.
What happens now is unclear. Earlier this week, Ms Rinehart said she had hoped to be viewed as a "white knight" by the ailing company, whose share price has dropped by nearly 90 per cent in the past five years. She could slowly build up her stake, or even launch a takeover bid. Or, as she has already threatened, she could walk away – then buy back her shares at bargain-basement prices. This week Ms Rinehart received support from a kindred spirit. "Understand lefties worried by Gina R," tweeted Mr Murdoch. "But is she, or any other single person, to be banned from buying or starting a newspaper? Think anew."