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Jun 20, 2012

Labor’s Fairfax histrionics, a call for press control.

Cartoon: By Nicholson.

The ongoing Fairfax Media saga is spurring an increasingly shrill response from the government. Labor members are now calling for press control, a popular cause among authoritarians who brook no criticism of themselves. The spin involves terms like, defending democracy, editorial independence, social contract, and free market failure.

We all know what the real issue is though. If the Labor Party doesn’t get its way through threats, cajoling, and class warfare rhetoric, it reserves the right to use legislation as a blunt instrument:

A move is under way to punish media owners who breach editorial standards, despite cabinet ministers claiming yesterday there was little they could do to stop Australia's richest person taking over Fairfax Media. …

The motion, which Mr Gibbons wanted to be debated in parliament on Monday, argues that the media industry has lost its "social licence to operate" and must face greater government control. "Concentration of news media ownership in the hands of a few represents, prima facie, a competitive market failure requiring compensatory regulation to ensure socially acceptable outcomes," his motion states.

Labor whip Joel Fitzgibbon last night threw his support behind Mr Gibbons's motion, saying he expected it to spark debate on both sides of politics. …
At the centre of the storm is the refusal of Rinehart to sign the Charter of Editorial Independence, something that seems to hold some sort of religious icon status. Essentially this document gives complete control of the running of newspapers to the employees, including hiring and firing of staff. While the current board agrees with it, it should be remembered that none of them have any substantive shareholding in the company.
The Acting Prime Minister yesterday attacked Mrs Rinehart for disregarding the Fairfax charter of editorial independence and planning to use her stake in the company to advance her conservative political views and mining interests. …

Doubts arose over whether the editorial charter had the authority claimed by its supporters, given current board members had not signed it. Agreed on and signed by the Fairfax Media board of directors 20 years ago, the Charter of Editorial Independence is a document still adhered to in principle by the board and new directors. It has not been signed by any director since the original signatories, and this includes the current Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett.

If Mrs Rinehart signed the charter, she would be the first director to do so since the original directors, including Zelman Cowen. The Australian understands the combined Fairfax house committees have at various times asked the board to re-sign the charter, but have been assured it still stands as an agreement between the parties.
While a Board of Directors should allow editors a wide degree of discretion, it has a responsibility to the shareholders in the company to ensure that the content appeals to the widest possible audience. Labor’s claim that Rinehart would turn it into a ‘Mining Gazette’ is highly unlikely given her investment. She has the smarts to understand that the public wants and pays for a newspaper, not a very expensive personal blog.

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