Fran O'Sullivan: Fairfax not over till Gina Rinehart sings

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Gina Rinehart in the driving seat may be just what Fairfax Media needs to keep its leading titles afloat. Photo / Getty Images
Gina Rinehart in the driving seat may be just what Fairfax Media needs to keep its leading titles afloat. Photo / Getty Images

Gina Rinehart is a tough broad whose personal balance sheet is arguably large enough to bail out Australia's financially-stressed Fairfax media company.

The imminent prospect of the world's richest woman getting control of Australia's two prime daily newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's the Age, and, the Australian Financial Review, through allegedly "bullying" the Fairfax board into making her its deputy chairman, and giving her proxies boardroom seats, has incensed politicians and journalists.

Rinehart comes from the hard-nosed Australian mining world. The daughter of magnate Lang Hancock, known as the King of the Pilbara, parlayed the cash pile from the iron ore royalties which she inherited into a major fortune by forming strategic alliances and opening new mines.

Liberal MP and former investment banker Malcolm Turnbull and Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy fear a Rinehart-controlled Fairfax will exert undue editorial influence, not just on policy but also election outcomes.

That's why they are ramping up allegations that she intends to turn the Fairfax titles into a "mining gazette" to promote a better tax regime for the sector.

Corralling Rinehart would be a tough challenge for any company chairman, particularly as she stands to be the only putative director who will have any serious skin in the game around the Fairfax board table.

But putting a hard-nosed businesswoman into the box seat may do more to ensure the Fairfax Media empire's survival than this week's announcement that the company has sold another stake in a profitable asset to retire debt.

Fairfax now has just 51 per cent of Trade Me after raising A$160 million from flicking more shares to institutional investors on top of the 34 per cent it floated in last year's IPO.

The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald will go tabloid next March and 1900 employees will be cut.

Fairfax has long prided itself on its reputation for editorial independence and its journalistic quality.

But trophy mastheads such as the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age are shadows of their former selves.

The cadres of well-paid special writers, foreign correspondents and top notch financial specialists have already been decimated as lacklustre management resorted to cutting costs as a survival strategy instead of rising to the digital challenge.

The current Fairfax board, like its predecessors, has stood by a protocol which says directors should not interfere in the group's editorial direction and has honoured the company "charter of independence".

This approach works when the company's ownership is widespread.

But when its very survival is at risk it is harder to sustain.

It is absurd to believe that any individual shareholder, particularly one that has now bought 18.67 per cent of a company which has been in sharp financial decline under years of corporate mismanagement, would not seek to exert strong influence.

Rinehart has already made it clear she wants a say in editorial direction and the selection of editors.

The company long ago lost its fabled "rivers of gold" - the classified advertising streams - to online competitors.

It has a lot of ground to make up in transforming its products for the digital age.

This is important if Fairfax is to successfully operate behind an internet firewall.

Paying customers will be hard to attract if content is pedestrian.

But the first priority must be to shore-up the company's balance sheet.

At the stroke of a pen, Rinehart could do this by injecting new capital so that even more debt can be retired and funds released to invest in its long overdue digital strategy.

The ultimate fate of Fairfax's trophy mastheads has still to play out.

CCZ Equities analyst Roger Colman, who last year predicted that both titles would physically cease to exist within the next decade, has had his views effectively confirmed by the current chief executive.

On this side of the Tasman, Fairfax NZ boss Allen Williams appears to believe that the New Zealand operations will not be affected by the company's strategic changes. But it is hard to see that situation persisting for long.

So is Rinehart the devil in drag as her opponents claim?

Media proprietors tend to be quixotic beasts. They will buy fights and underwrite big editorial legal campaigns because its "their money to burn" when corporate media chief executives shy away from risk.

Rupert Murdoch sustained the Australian through many years of losses and insisted that it stay focused on the national interest as well as quality journalism. Murdoch has not been afraid to make his influence felt as the Leveson inquiry has disclosed.

Rinehart will feel justified in pointing out that editorial independence has not resulted in a thriving future for the Fairfax Australian titles which have lost far too many of their paying customers.

But that is secondary to management's failure to move to digital platforms earlier.

A media patron could well emerge in New Zealand if APN's NZ assets are partially privatised (via a float).

Deutsche Bank is leading a strategic review of APN's NZ assets including the Herald.

Earlier this year, logistics empire founder Owen Glenn and entrepreneur Eric Watson were reported to be sniffing about the Herald.

It is understood the pair sought meetings with APN management.

Glenn is cashed up through the sale of his logistics empire. He is also seriously interested in New Zealand's future direction as evidenced by the articles he wrote for the Business Herald earlier this year.

But he is not the only cashed up Kiwi who is said to be interested in the assets.

In the past Sir Douglas Myers has privately expressed interest, but in recent years has said the window had passed.

Will a "media patron" emerge in New Zealand? It's too early to tell but can't be discounted.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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