SMH economics editor warns he will consider his position if Rinehart refuses independence guarantee

fairfax press conference

Fairfax staff at the Sydney press conference. From left: Neil Chenoweth; Stuart Washington and David Marr. Pic: Zoe Ferguson


Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins has become the first senior Fairfax Media journalist to suggest he might resign if Gina Rinehart refuses to guarantee editorial independence.

His pledge came as Fairfax journalists called on mining billionaire Rinehart to commit to the company’s charter of editorial independence.

The demands came the day after Rinehart confirmed that she had increased her stake in the company to 18.67%, making it all but certain that she will be given seats on the company’s board.

Yesterday saw the company unveil a wide ranging restructure which will see 1900 job losses, press closures, a switch of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to tabloid format and the introduction of paywalls.

Staff staged press conferences outside the SMH in Sydney and The Age in Melbourne this afternoon. At the Sydney press conference senior journalists including Gittins, David Marr and Kate McClymont went public on their letter to Rinehart.

Gittins said: “The independence of Fairfax is the most valuable commercial asset and could be easily lost if no sufficient respect was paid to protect the freedom of journalists as reporters to report without fear or favour, and as commentators to call it as they see it.

“I’m not particularly keen on the idea of anybody telling me what I’m allowed to say about the mining industry.”

Asked what would happen if no guarantee was forthcoming, Gittins replied: “I would have to reconsider my position.”

Marr said: “For the last 20 years, reporting at Fairfax newspapers has been protected by a charter, by an agreement between the board and management and the journalists. Which has a simple purpose, which means that the board can not interfere with the reporting of the papers. That’s been honoured for a couple of decades and Ms Rinehart wants to get on the board of Fairfax and break that agreement.”

Marr warned that Rinehart appeared to be looking for the right to intervene in editorial matters. He said: “The Charter has protected the assets of Fairfax, the readers, the community and the journalists. That is now what is under direct challenge by Ms Rinehart.”

McClymont added: “For 180 years Fairfax has been chronicling the life of this city, this state and this nation and we have been doing so without fear or favour. And all we ask is to be continued to be allowed to keep doing that. It’s absolutely vital that Fairfax be allowed to maintain what it has always been renowned for and that’s the quality and independence of our reporting.”

The journalists’ letter:

Dear Mrs Rinehart,

The journalists employed at Fairfax metropolitan media – The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, The Age, The Sunday Age and The Australian Financial Review – have asked us, as their representatives, to write to you about recent reports concerning your attempts to join the board of Fairfax Media.

Articles in The Australian newspaper in the past month have stated that a reason you were not successful in joining the board was because you declined to give undertakings you would not seek to influence the editorial content of Fairfax publications.

Whether there is any truth to these reports we do not know. That said, we would like you to know the journalists at Fairfax strongly support the long-standing practice here that we report the affairs of the country free from influence of the board and its members.

When the ownership of the company changed hands two decades ago, the Fairfax board and representatives of the journalists employed here negotiated a Charter of Editorial Independence setting our the fundamental principles upon which journalism is practised.

Underpinning the charter was the idea that the independence of Fairfax journalism under new owners would be safeguarded by setting down simple rules to ensure the newspapers report whatever issues they and their editors regard as important, free of commercial or other considerations of the board and the investors they represent.

It was a simple idea that has proved highly successful. The reputation for independence enjoyed by Fairfax publications remains unparalleled in this country thanks largely to the charter which was negotiated and signed by the company’s then chairman, a former governor-general of Australia, the late Sir Zelman Cowan.

Given that history, you will understand the reports suggesting you might not support the Charter of Editorial Independence have caused considerable disquiet among staff.

We would like you to give us an assurance you do support the principles set out in the Charter of Editorial Independence and, in the event you join the Fairfax board, you will agree to uphold them.

Such an assurance would go a long way to reassuring the staff who produce the publications in which you have such a substantial investment.

We would of course be happy to discuss this or any other Fairfax issue with you should you so wish.

Yours sincerely,

Combined Herald House Committee, Sydney

Age House Committee, Melbourne

Age Independence Committee

AFR House Committee

Gittins said: “The independence of Fairfax is the most valuable communications asset and could be easily lost is no sufficient respect was paid to protect the freedom of journalists as reporters to report without fear or favour, and as commentators to call it as they see it. I’m not particularly keen on the idea of anybody telling me what I’m allowed to say about the mining industry.”

Asked if Rinehart were to interfere with such views, Gittins stated that he would have to reconsider his position at Fairfax.


  1. roger colman
    19 Jun 12
    6:39 pm

  2. Bad luck team. She owns it (or hopefully will). The journalists should never have editorial independence, and not be accountable to anybody but their own cohort. If they want editorial independence from owners, that they should own their own company rather than wreck this one.
    Fairfax journalists have destroyed the Fairfax metro newspapers over the past two decades by generally writing dribble and not targeting the centre and right where the wealthy audience is. They are the ones who are responsible for this debacle. That’s why Fairfax metro circulations have fallen more than News tabloids and “The Australian” over the past decade. The readers have deserted Fairfax more than they have deserted News. They have lost the Saturday Sydney circulation battle, lost the Sunday Sydney circulation battle, lost the Sydney evening circulation battle (1988), and lost the AFR versus “The Australian” battle. What a record.
    I cannot wait until an active owner takes the reins of this company since the 1987 privatisation. (Keating stopped Conrad Black from gaining proper control). At least the conservative UK “Telegraph” has seen off News Ltd “The Times”, something these Fairfax journalists have been unable to do. In general Fairfax, journalistically just don’t do the hard yards anymore in the metro markets.
    Fairfax’s Stalingrad.

  3. Anonymous
    19 Jun 12
    7:39 pm

  4. Tim, Robin, et al,

    Alarm bells.

  5. Jack B. Nimble
    19 Jun 12
    8:38 pm

  6. Roger Corman: surely you’re fishing for a Moby Dick-sized bite?

    Overall: losing Ross Gittens would be a blow to the SMH but David Marr can go and take his massive salary and relatively low and biased output with him.

  7. Bill Posters
    19 Jun 12
    9:25 pm

  8. “Fairfax journalists have destroyed the Fairfax metro newspapers over the past two decades by generally writing dribble and not targeting the centre and right where the wealthy audience is.”

    Sure. And the Oz makes money. Carry on fantasising.

  9. Hugo J
    20 Jun 12
    9:06 am

  10. Roger? “The Australian” really? What a joke! That is the newspaper equivalent of an A380 taking off every day, Sydney to London with no passengers on it. Can be handy for a road trip with the kids though, playing spot the ad !

  11. Anonymous
    20 Jun 12
    9:34 am

  12. By the look of it, she’s bought 20% of KFC too.

  13. Kirsty
    20 Jun 12
    10:15 am

  14. Good on you Gittens and every other journalist and employee at Fairfax who is speaking up. If Gina gets her way the people will speak with their wallets including our family who have been buying subscriptions to the SMH (and now online subscriptions) for a very long time.

    As for the Australain.. Fish and Chip paper.

  15. The Logician
    20 Jun 12
    11:12 am

  16. You are so right Roger. Fairfax publications are the only publications in the world suffering declining hard-copy circulation and readership declines because of their left-wing independent views.

    Oh … hang on … what’s that? It’s happening world-wide? I didn’t realise Fairfax journalists impact was so far-reaching. All the more reason to shut them down I say!

  17. Damian Smith
    20 Jun 12
    11:42 am

  18. Not sure if that’s the real Roger Colman or a troll…but honestly – are you kidding me? You are not seriously suggesting that the “business” problem with Fairfax is that it’s too left wing? As opposed to the several hundred structural reasons why traditional paper printing is doomed. Have a read of this article Roger, might give you a bit more perspective, compared to the drivel you spouted here.

  19. Joey
    20 Jun 12
    1:08 pm

  20. I’d say it’s a given that Gina Rinehart will want to influence (read direct) editorial content. I think it’s the only reason she’s buying into the company.

    As Alan Kohler said in yesterday’s Smart Company: “Gina Rinehart has absolutely nothing to contribute to the transformation of the company into a profitable digital publisher”. But that’s not why she’s buying it.

    The fact is, unless Fairfax management can get its act together, Fairfax is merely a business in decline. And Gina’s billions can’t stop that only delay it.

  21. The Judge
    20 Jun 12
    1:54 pm

  22. Did someone mention suing other directors over coverage of the Hancock Prospecting family ownership stoush, given that directors insurance doesn’t apply if another director with more than 15% sues them? Do you reckon she’ll waive that one as well?

  23. mother fucker bitches
    18 Jul 12
    8:36 pm

  24. I think editorial independence should not be lost as you are gonna be bored as there is going to be only one point of view. no offence but be more open!