Mining's Media Takeover


Amid all the sound and fury generated by Gina Rinehart’s assault on the Fairfax board, the slashing of over 1900 jobs from The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review and the threat of hundreds if not thousands of jobs being lost at News Limited, it was easy to miss the appointment of Don Voelte to the CEO’s chair at 7 West Media.

For those on the east coast of Australia who may not know the name, Voelte is an American who is also the former chief executive of Woodside Petroleum. As CEO of Woodside, Voelte earned a reputation as the brash, unstoppable force behind the decision to put a $40 billion gas hub on the pristine Kimberley coast. In his role as chief executive of Seven West Media, he’ll be the owner of the West Australian newspaper, the Seven Network, Yahoo!7 and Pacific Publications.

The media is becoming dominated, not by media experts or even "newspaper" people, but by current and former players in the resource sector with zero experience in the media industry.

Gina Rinehart now owns around 15 per cent of Fairfax — publisher of The Age, the SMH and The AFR — and 10.6 per cent of shares in the television station Channel Ten, and Don Voelte is now boss of Channel 7 and The West Australian newspaper.

Much has already been written about Rinehart’s suitability as a director of a media company who refuses to respect the editorial independence of those newspapers. Such is her ignorance of the media business that it has been left to the Communications Minister and Shadow Minister, Stephen Conroy and Malcolm Turnbull, to try to educate Rinehart about the commercial imperatives for respecting that independence, agreeing that her failure to do so could drive the papers into the ground.

For his part, Voelte comes to the top job at Channel 7 and The West Australian with no experience in media. In fact, the market was so impressed with his lack of experience that the announcement of his appointment saw the company’s share price fall 27 cents before closing 13.7 per cent lower on a day when the broader market fell 0.4 per cent.

He is on the record as a vocal critic of the resource super profits tax and previously suggested that putting a price on carbon raises issues of sovereign risk for Australian companies. While he is keen to see a nuclear power industry grow in Australia, his views about the independence of the media — particularly his media — is not yet known.

With two opinionated owners potentially controlling two commercial TV stations, one national newspaper and the leading newspapers for Sydney, Perth and Melbourne, and the only other commercial competitor, News Limited going through a massive restructuring and retrenching up to 10 per cent of its editorial staff, there is a very real fear that certain stories will be pushed while the space available for others will all but disappear.

For instance Rinehart has made no secret of her desire to elevate climate sceptics to the same level as peer-reviewed climate scientists in terms of column inches and coverage and her commitment to bring in foreign workers to fast track the roll-out of her mines has been immortalised in her poem "Our Future". Voelte has, in his first week in the job, come out swinging over the threat to "free speech", he sees in the government’s attempt to limit ownership of the news.

But with major players from the resource sector in control of so many mainstream media organisations I believe the greater threat comes from their capacity to keep stories out of the papers and off the news, than comes from their ability to push their own agendas.

In a period of such enormous change, innovation and imagination are vital to the health of any nation, including ours. It could be argued that it is a collective lack of imagination and empathy that has led to the crippled state of affairs in immigration, industry, education, the arts and certainly our energy systems.

That’s why keeping stories out of circulation is so important to preserving the status quo. Storytelling, sharing ideas and possibilities is what makes change possible. We are inspired to act when we see others achieve the goals we want for ourselves and our communities

With the resource sector dominating the news we all read and watch we have to ask where will we go for inspiration, innovation and information. For instance, where will we get to read about how investment in coal has fallen by 26 per cent in China over the last 12 months? Or that the US has shut down over 100 coal-fired power stations over the last five years? Where do we get to read stories that detail the end of cheap coal or stories that show renewable, cheap, accessible power solutions for the poor of India?

While we can appreciate and financially support various independent media sites like New Matilda, RenewEconomy and Crikey, we cannot afford to leave our mainstream media outlets to the whims of any one sector or family, even if they are the only ones rich enough to own them.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.