Gina buys the chook run

In the early part of his political career, former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen – aka The Hillbilly Dictator – had a jaundiced attitude to the pesky officers of the press corps. “The greatest thing that could happen to the state and the nation is when we get rid of all the media,” he said. “Then we could live in peace and tranquility and no one would know anything.”

No one, maybe not even Joh, knew exactly what he meant by that – you could say that about a lot of his most famous public utterances, actually – but it’s widely suspected that he was serious at the time.

It was Joh’s press secretary, Allen Callaghan, who convinced him that the press, if manipulated effectively, could be used as a political weapon. And Joh, as reactionary a figure as any to have appeared on the Australian political landscape, proved he could adapt. Soon, he would refer to the media as his “chooks”: “I have to feed them every afternoon,” he said.

“Feeding the chooks” has long since entered Australia’s journalistic lexicon to describe the relationship between politicians and their interlocuters. But what if you simply bought the chook run?

Bjelke-Petersen’s good friend, the Western Australian iron ore baron Lang Hancock (who also donated large sums of money to Joh’s political campaigns) understood this. In 1969 he founded the Perth-based (Sunday) Independent, which lasted until 1986. The relatively short-lived National Miner followed in 1974. Both were transparent attempts by Hancock to exercise his extraordinarily right-wing political beliefs through the fourth estate.

In his book Wake Up Australia! (1979) he suggested the power of government could be challenged in this way. “It could be broken by obtaining control of the media and then educating the public,” he said.

Gina Rinehart takes after her father. Her raid on Fairfax yesterday – expanding her stake in the company to around 12 percent – makes her close to the biggest shareholder in the newspaper, digital and radio conglomerate. This is on top of her 10 percent stake in Channel 10. And she’s not doing it for the money, honey. (Who, let alone the world’s richest woman, would bother investing in Fairfax for that these days?)

She’s doing it because, quite clearly, she wants a far greater say in how things are done in Australia. Leading street marches, let’s face it, looks pretty tawdry for a woman in pearls. Donations work, so too advertising, but editorial is so much better. It’s worked pretty well for Rupert Murdoch over the years and, well, since her wealth has just doubled by about $10 billion, why the hell not?

It’s a naked power play that’s already been greeted by fear and hostility in some quarters (Melbourne musician David Bridie summed up the green tenor by tweeting that should Rinehart take control of Fairfax, “the revolution starts tomorrow”) and scepticism by some economists that her push will translate into anything like the kind of influence she craves.

How successful she is will also depend partly on any changes recommended by the government’s imminent media convergence review, and the results of Ray Finkelstein‘s media inquiry. But perhaps the most telling comment came from media expert Margaret Simons (in Crikey), who cut through to the core of the issue when she pointed out that “The main way a board exercises influence over editorial is in selecting the editor.”

Rinehart’s not on the Fairfax board yet. And even if/when she does take her place at the table, that doesn’t immediately translate into effective control. But you can bet she’s wondering how The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age might look under the direction of someone like, say, The Australian‘s Chris Mitchell.

I suspect Joh Bjelke-Petersen would have been befuddled by the internet. He might even have wanted to stop it at the Tweed, along with condom vending machines, prostitution and gaming. Of course, he wasn’t very successful in stopping any of those things. Were he still around, though, he might have wondered what his old mate Lang Hancock thought about it all.

And I suspect Hancock, were he still around, might have told Joh something along these lines: in the information age, living in a world where no one would know anything is impractical, impossible and undesirable from either a political or business person’s point of view.  The key is getting people to know only the things that you want them to know.

In Gina Rinehart’s world, we are all a bunch of chooks.

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