If you’ve paid attention to the news recently then you may know Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart has been buying up shares in TV channels (Network Ten) and newspapers (Fairfax Media). What you may not be aware of is a video of Christopher Monckton and other climate change deniers plotting how to “capture” the Australian media to promote their views.
The video has to be watched to be believed. It’s surreal, almost like something out of a conspiracy thriller: a cabal of crazy people plotting how to control the media, and thus control people’s thoughts. Though Monckton may be prone to delusions of grandeur (this is coming from a man who believes he’s found the cure for AIDS), the things he says in this video are actually plausible.
But let’s start with Rinehart. She is Australia’s richest person, and Forbes lists her as the world’s 19th most powerful woman. Her annual income is $1 billion, 15,000 times the national average. Two weeks ago her wealth doubled to $20 billion, and the mineral deposits she owns could yet make her the richest person in the world in history. Rinehart is also a climate change denier. She has been a leader of the industry campaign against mining taxes – a campaign which was influential in bringing down Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – and more recently carbon taxes. She also advocates the secession of Western Australia so mining there is not subject to Australian regulations and her company can import cheap labor from overseas.
Rinehart’s company Hancock Prospecting says it is “interested in making an investment towards the media business given its importance to the nation’s future”. In other words, investing in media is not merely a financial move for Rinehart. Media is well outside her usual field of mining. Fairfax is a declining business deeply in debt and worth less than $2 billion, a fraction of her own wealth; if she wants to she can run the company at a loss. It is clear she wants media influence, and attacking climate science and environmentalism are likely to be high on her agenda.
Rinehart bought 10% of Network Ten in November 2010. At the time, denialist columnist Andrew Bolt wrote in News Limited’s Herald Sun that he had a “strong and not entirely uninformed hunch” though “can’t disclose just why I suspect” that “this deal may be the start of an attempted shakeup of one of the three big free-to-air TV stations, by a woman rightly alarmed that people in the eastern states have got complacent, living fatly off industries they despise and in their ignorance now threaten”, though he was unsure whether Rinehart could succeed in “turning it into, say, an Australian Fox News”. In April 2011, Andrew Bolt was given his own show on Ten, though the network denies any editorial influence by Rinehart.
In the last week, Rinehart has almost tripled her share of Fairfax Media to, at last count, 13% – making her the company’s biggest shareholder – and it is possible she could further increase it to 19%. (To breach cross-media ownership laws she would have to own 15% of both Ten and Fairfax.) Fairfax Media owns newspapers The Australian Financial Review, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times, as well as other regional newspapers, business magazines, and radio stations. Rinehart refused to comment to The Age on the purchase.
Rinehart’s friends already have influence in radio. John Singleton, owner of 2GB, says in relation to Rinehart:
“We have been able to overtly and covertly attack governments … because we have people employed by us like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones and Ray Hadley who agree with her thinking about the development of our resources, we act in concert in that way.”
Fairfax is the main independent voice in the Australian newspaper market. 70% of newspapers in this country are owned by News Limited, the Australian branch of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Their media around the world promote far-right-wing views like Rinehart’s and give a platform to deniers, employing commentators like Andrew Bolt. The most infamous example is Fox News, which is completely disconnected from reality. Fox News also promotes the Tea Party (which is itself an Astroturf protest movement funded by two of America’s richest men, the owners of multinational conglomerate company Koch Industries, who are also major donors to the Republican Party, right-wing think tanks, and climate change deniers – but I digress). If Rinehart buys Fairfax, virtually all mainstream Australian newspapers will then be owned by Murdoch and Rinehart.
“You look at the effect that Andrew Bolt has had since he was rocketed to fame and I think – without giving away too many secrets – Joanne is going to end up doing quite a bit more on that channel if all goes according to plan.”
It is clear from context that “Joanne” is climate contrarian blogger Joanne Nova. Monckton then goes on to propose the creation of an Australian equivalent of Fox News:
“Is there an Australian version of Fox News? No. This is the thing I’ve been looking at in the UK. Frankly, whatever you do at street level – which is what you’re talking about here – is not going to have much of an impact compared with capturing an entire news media. […]
And that is the way to do it. You have to capture the high ground on what are still the major media and I think will remain so for quite some time. And until we crack that one both in the UK and Australia, we are going to suffer from a disadvantage over against the more libertarian-minded right-leaning people in the United States, who have got Fox News and have therefore got things like a Tea Party movement, and therefore at last put some lead into the pencil of the Republican Party. And it seems to me that devoting some time and effort to encouraging those we know who are super-rich to invest in perhaps even establishing a new satellite TV channel – it’s not an expensive thing – and then get a few Jo Novas and Andrew Bolts to go on and do the commentating every day – but keep the news straight and fair and balanced as they do on Fox. That would break through and give to Australia, as it has to America, a proper dose of free market thinking. […]
You have the businesspeople explaining how the free market concept in business works every day and reaching thousands of millions of people around the world on Fox News. And let’s be clear: that’s still the way to do it. [...]
I would like to suggest a modest free market solution to the problem we’ve identified, that we don’t have a TV channel of our own. I would be very happy to work with people like Jo Nova, Andrew Bolt, etcetera, to put together a business plan for such a thing, if that idea would be generally supported and then we’ll see if we can get someone to be an angel funder.”
This is not dissimilar to something Rinehart’s predecessor and father Lang Hancock, who was as right-wing as his daughter, once wrote:
“[W]e can change the situation so as to limit the power of government. It could be broken by obtaining control of the media and then educating the public. […] Control of the press could also be obtained by several of the big mining groups banding together with a view to taking over one or more of the present giant newspaper chains which control the TV and radio channels, and converting them to the path of ‘free enterprise’.”
When another Australian mining magnate, Clive Palmer, was asked if he’d considered investing in the media, he offhandedly replied:
“Fairfax looks very exciting. You could have an east-west play with Fairfax. Gina should come from the west and buy 15 per cent and we could buy 30 per cent from the eastern side of Australia and really get the place humming again. That sounds very, very attractive. I’ll have to consider that overnight and see what my stockbroker tells me in morning and my financial advisers.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests the average Australian may be unaware of who owns the media they consume. It would not be in the public interest for the entire mainstream media to be owned by a handful of billionaires.
We need much stronger laws on media ownership. The interim report of the Government’s ongoing Convergence Review recommends a public interest test for acquisitions and mergers. However, it also recommends removing some existing cross-media ownership laws because the lines between media are blurring. I’m not well-versed in the specifics of policy in this area, but I do know one thing: media ownership restrictions need to be strengthened, not weakened.
I think it’s pretty clear what’s happening here. The mining industry is accustomed to getting its way. They have been used to controlling Australian governments (of both Labor and Liberal varieties) via behind-the-scenes lobbying and political donations. The current hung parliament has given them a fright, because the mining industry does not control the crossbenchers, particularly the Greens, and hence have less influence than usual. That’s why we are constantly bombarded by rhetoric about how “unstable” this government is.
So the industry has had to shift to a more public lobbying strategy: influencing and buying newspapers, TV, and radio; running advertising campaigns; flooding the media with Institute of Public Affairs lobbyists; and effectively co-opting the Liberal Party as an Astroturf “protest” movement.
Clearly there are forces at play here that are not transparent to the public. If left unchecked, we could end up in a situation where our media and political institutions pretend to represent our interests, but really represent the interests of those who can afford to buy influence.