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. The "super-rich", he said, should invest in the media, install like-minded commentators and give the country "a proper dose of free-market thinking".
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 that is 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 and most venerable newspaper group, sparking fears that she wants to use her stake to promote her own commercial interests.
Far from allaying those fears, 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 popular 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, one of the Herald's most respected writers.
Now in the novel position of reporting daily on their own travails, journalists are fighting back. They have written to Ms Rinehart, who is estimated to be worth A$29bn (£18.8bn), urging her to uphold the charter's principles. They have released a video enlisting public support. And they are using the papers in which she has an 18.7 per cent stake to push their message.
A recent cartoon depicted the tycoon sitting atop of a mountain of ore. "Imagine how much better off I would be with a favourable government and a sympathetic media," said the caption.
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", both set to take effect on Sunday.
Unlike Mr Murdoch, who founded his empire on Adelaide's The News, which he inherited 60 years ago, she has no love of newspapers. "She regards journalists as either socialists or communists," says Paul Barry, an investigative journalist and author. "Not only does she know nothing about the media business, but she doesn't understand or sympathise with the media.
"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."
Perth-born Ms Rinehart – who in her youth urged resource-rich Western Australia to secede from the rest of the country, and advocated the use of nuclear bombs in mining exploration – shot to prominence in 2010, when she made a rare public appearance at a rally opposing the mining tax. Pearls glistening in the sunlight, she bellowed "Axe the tax!" from the back of a flat-bed truck.
A fortnight later, Kevin Rudd was ousted as Prime Minister because of his poor poll ratings, partly attributed to the tax. And although it was diluted by Mr Rudd's successor, Julia Gillard, Ms Rinehart remains at war with the government – and vice versa. Writing in The Monthly magazine in March, Australia's Treasurer, Wayne Swan, launched an extraordinary attack on her and other mining billionaires, claiming that "a handful of vested interests that have pocketed a disproportionate share of the nation's economic success now feel they have a right to shape Australia's future to satisfy their own self-interest".
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, once 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, although most observers consider that unlikely. Or, as she has already threatened, she could walk away – then buy back her shares at bargain-basement prices.
In the newsrooms, gloom about job losses is compounded by the uncertainty regarding Ms Rinehart's intentions. "The staff are scared and depressed, they are apprehensive about their futures," said one journalist. Prospects are bleak for those facing redundancy – the industry is a duopoly, and Mr Murdoch's News Limited is also planning deep cuts.
Kate McClymont, a senior Herald journalist, said of Ms Rinehart: "We just know so little about her. But if she can't get on with three of her four children, I wonder how she'd get on with a whole variety of people here at Fairfax." (The adult children recently sued their mother for control of the family trust.)
In the worst-case scenario, "all the papers in this country would be owned by two interventionist proprietors representing the biggest of big business", as Mr Marr puts it.
Adele Ferguson, a Fairfax business journalist who has written an unauthorised biography of Ms Rinehart, says: "She sees the world in black and white. I think she would have a lot more influence over her papers than Murdoch does over his."
Media commentators such as Peter Cox say it would be commercial madness for her to try to remould The Age and Herald in her own image – readers would desert in droves. But rationality does not always guide Ms Rinehart's actions, or her beliefs. She told the ABC TV programme 4 Corners this week that "the media should… permit to be published that climate change has been occurring naturally since the Earth began … not due to mankind at all".
Fairfax has fought off previous attempts to control it, including by – in the early 1990s – Kerry Packer and Conrad Black.
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."
Andrew Bolt: Might on the right
"Loathed by some, loved by others but never ignored" is how the Australian Broadcasting Corporation describes the country's most prominent right-wing provocateur, Andrew Bolt.
Gina Rinehart, Australia's richest woman and newest media mogul, is a big fan of the journalist and blogger, who shares her sympathy with mining firms and denial of climate change.
Bolt also maintains that racism was not behind the notorious 'stolen generations' policy towards Aborigines. Ms Rinehart acquired a seat on the Ten Network's board, where Bolt has his own show, and the controversial journalist also writes columns for the Melbourne-based Herald-Sun.Reuse content