The price of opinion

Gina Rinehart, for all that she inspires consternation, does not strike me as a particularly deep thinker.

The poetry is a giveaway. We laugh, but it does tell us something serious about the person who wrote it. For instance, consider this extract:

Is our future threatened with massive debts run up by political hacks
Who dig themselves out by unleashing rampant tax
The end result is sending Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore

It’s bad because it’s so shallow. The first line above is directly countered by the second, and the third is starkly at odds with another near the beginning that reads “And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life”. (If concern for billions of poor people is paramount, maybe we should send Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore! Presumably, if one is poor, one needs investment, growth and jobs a lot more than one needs expensive minerals.) There’s more further on, but I dare not labour the point.

Being a poem, I feel it’s likely a genuine expression of Rinehart’s beliefs, and yet there’s clearly no real intellect behind it. It’s an inconsistent jumble of angriness, trying inanely to graft corporate libertarianism onto both nationalistic pride and compassion for the world’s poor. (It’s hard enough to put any two of those together in a sensible fashion, let alone all three.)

These are not the arguments of someone who cares about understanding the world; they are undisguised talking points generated by, well, political hacks — dumbed-down for public consumption and condensed so as to be interjected at every opportunity into political discourse. They are the sort of thing you expect to be regurgitated by the trolls that inhabit the comments sections of news websites (labouring under the illusion that they are the messengers rather merely the dupes).

So, let that set the stage for Rinehart’s seemingly imminent assimilation of Fairfax. Many are concerned that this will dramatically skew the ideological slant of news reporting in Australia. I rather suspect it will destroy Fairfax before it has the desired effect.

That you can buy media companies and hence editorial positions is a simple piece of logic, but perhaps too simplistic.

If you want to do it properly, you cannot simply issue edicts to staff that certain ideological arguments must be made and certain positions attacked or defended. Freedom of speech is the catch cry of journalists everywhere. You have to cultivate a team of people who, broadly speaking, believe as you do and will make your arguments for you without being asked.

Consider Rupert Murdoch and his News empire. Murdoch does not command his papers as a general commands an army. “Nothing so crude”, points out Jonathan Holmes. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff continues: “Murdoch has succeeded in this game as well as he has, and for as long as he has, because there is magic to it. Wielding power is his art.”

A large contingent of the current Fairfax staff probably wouldn’t want to be part of any Rinehart experiment in the art of power. So, she needs to find replacements from somewhere else. But where? You might get a few guest editorials from Andrew Bolt and like-minded people, but the successful Andrew Bolts already have jobs. News Ltd might have a broad ideological alliance with the like of Rinehart, but they’re still a commercial competitor, and they need to keep their own people.

Hence the cultivation. Unless you want to cannibalise the competition, you can only replace experienced journalists with less experienced ones, but that segues into the next problem.

While you’re implementing your ideological slant and training up your new staff, you also need to somehow maintain your current readership. You can’t abandon it, and you can’t just eat into News Ltd’s market share, because these would both defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. This is especially a problem because: (a) the reduction in experience is bound to impact the quality of your publications, at least initially, (b) at least some of your readership will rebel against changes in editorial policy, and (c) your readership is already on the point of reconsidering their news options in light of the Internet. In other words, a lot of your readers will be turned off and will instead go to the ABC, SBS, Crikey or international news outlets.

The changes already announced by Fairfax — the tabloidisation of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and the implementation of an online pay-wall — may only compound the problem for Rinehart. A format change is going to make readers notice that Something is Going On, and so they may be just a little more sceptical of their news even before any change in editorial policy.

The basic problem with (what we assume to be) Rinehart’s plan is that her opinions already have a voice in News Ltd papers. That market has already been taken, and expanding it is easier said than done. Andrew Bolt and Christopher Monckton, among others, see Fox News as the template to be emulated, in order to promote their brand of libertarianism, but if that was going to work in Australia it would probably have worked already. Melbourne Talk Radio (MTR), starring Mr Bolt, ran up $9 million in losses and closed just short of 2 years after starting. The Australian public evidentially has its own ideas about the sort of editorial positions it’s prepared to put up with. On issues that Rinehart cares about — the mining and carbon taxes, for instance — the public’s opinion has already hardened. What, then, is the business case for a Rinehart-ified Fairfax? What “value” would it offer, and why should it deserve to survive in the marketplace?

It would be nice to think that another independent news organisation might rise up from the ashes of Fairfax — one with a more sustainable business model.

It would be nice, while we’re on hypotheticals, to think that powerful interests might occasionally reflect on the factual basis of their own beliefs before buying news outlets to propagate them. I wonder, though, to what extent Rinehart’s own opinions have been shaped by what she reads and hears in the media. If we accept that opinions can be manipulated, why not the opinions of those ostensibly doing to manipulating?

Edit: I’ve just noticed that Nick Bryant, being an actual journalist, has written a much more comprehensive and enlightening article on Gina Rinehart than I ever could.