COMMUNICATIONS Minister Stephen Conroy and shadow minister Malcolm Turnbull joined yesterday in declaring that Gina Rinehart should sign up to the charter of editorial independence and not try to turn the Fairfax mastheads into mining industry mouthpieces.
Senator Conroy and Mr Turnbull warned that failure to preserve editorial independence would hit readership.
The issue has been cited in the board's resistance to Mrs Rinehart's request for seats on the board. Jack Cowin, a likely Rinehart board appointment, when asked recently which way Mrs Rinehart would take editorial policy, said she would have a stronger right-wing view than probably the average liberal journalist, but added that she had not interfered with news policies at the Ten Network.
Senator Conroy said Mrs Rinehart had indicated that she was ''only interested in influencing the editorial content of Fairfax'' while the board had a strong position on editorial independence.
He said there were genuine concerns that interference would destroy the credibility of the Fairfax mastheads. ''Their readership respects and admires the charter and what it represents, and if you were to start turning it into just a pro-mining industry gazette, well I don't think you would see the rest of the shareholders in Fairfax be too excited about the collapse in readership.''
This morning Senator Conroy said Mrs Rinehart is entitled to representation on the Fairfax board but added ''what she's not entitled to do is trash the brand for all the other shareholders".
Mr Turnbull said the board's reluctance to give her seats without a commitment to editorial independence was understandable. Part of Fairfax's revenues ''are based on a perception that it is editorially independent and it's not controlled by one vested interest or another''. ''If Fairfax … were seen to be a mouthpiece of Gina Rinehart and a spokesvehicle for the mining industry, that would undermine its business model dramatically,'' he said.
Senator Conroy said the government could not justify putting money into newspapers to help them. The government could not ignore the technological changes in the industry any more than the Fairfax or News Ltd shareholders could. He said 1900 job losses were terrible for any sector, but ''there is a future, just like with photography''.
Mr Turnbull praised Fairfax's plan to charge digital subscriptions, and predicted that hard copy editions of some newspapers were likely to partly or fully disappear.
''But of course the problem is that as long as you've still got a solid base of advertising in your print edition, much of which you don't think will transition to the digital platform, then you're reluctant to abandon the print platform - but at some point it will have to happen. And this is where the destructive creation, or the creative destruction of the internet is affecting all business,'' he said.
Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said Fairfax ''has long been a very important contributor to Australia's democracy'' and so yesterday's news ''should be of real concern to all of us''. As the member for Maribyrnong he was also concerned about the planned closure of the Tullamarine printing facility.
''I strongly encourage Fairfax's leadership to take a long-term view of their business activities by investing in the skills of their workforce, in all locations, as an alternative to redundancies,'' he said.
The opposition sought to tie the carbon tax into the Fairfax job losses. In the Senate, frontbencher George Brandis, pointing to the power costs the company faced, asked whether Finance Minister Penny Wong accepted any responsibility for the job losses. Senator Wong said that ''to seriously suggest that a business decision made by a media company is something to do with a carbon price is a seriously odd thing to do''.
Premier Ted Baillieu said Fairfax had made its commercial decisions. ''In the longer term, we want to ensure that there is media diversity in this state.''
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