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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.

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