Vanity Publishing

In the last few days, Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, has increased her share holding in Fairfax Media to just under 15 percent.  She has already bought a share of Channel 10, and it is widely suggested that she hopes to use her newpaper and television interests to help shape the political debate in such areas as mining policy, taxation and climate change.  Another mining magnate, Clive Palmer, has also mused – perhaps not very seriously – about buying into newspapers, or starting up a new one of his own.

Ever since the first barbarian employed the first bard to sing his praises, there has been a link between media and politics, but the link has shifted lately.  People like Silvio Berlusconi – or Donald Trump? – made their fortunes from the media first, then used these millions to carve out a place in politics.

In the age of the internet, though, the old media no longer generates a fortune, so that for Gina Rinehart or Clive Palmer, dabbling in newspapers has become a rich person’s hobby.  To these noisy miners (thank you, Annabel Crabb), it’s pin money anyway, and it comes with the glittering prospect of having a significant influence on the public debate.

It’s not a new idea either.

The Times (originally the Daily Universal Register) was founded in 1785.  At the time, a particularly juicy divorce scandal was all over the newspapers.  A rich heiress, Lady Strathmore, was trying to divorce her fortune-hunting second husband, Andrew Bowes, for adultery, cruelty, kidnapping, imprisonment.  You name it, he had done it, and it was all over the popular press.

Public opinion was very much with the Countess, so Bowes set out on a propaganda war against his wife.  He paid a cartoonist to sketch her in pornographic poses (in one image she is suckling cats while her child weeps for her attention), and in 1787 he bought shares in The Times.  Miraculously, the newspaper began publishing articles in favour of ‘the taming of bad wives’.  Lady Strathmore eventually won the case, though her reputation was by then in ribbons, partly thanks to The Times.  Through Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, the Queen is her direct descendant.

In 1821, there was another even more juicy scandal, when George IV tried to divorce Queen Caroline for adultery.  George’s numerous adulteries were well known, so again, public sympathy was with the wife.  In response, the king’s supporters set up a new newspaper, John Bull, to put his side, with a tame editor who was the brother of George’s personal chaplain.

Newspapers in early Australia could be similarly compromised by the interests of their owners.  In 1839, the Catholic Archbishop John Polding decided to start a newspaper to defend the Catholic interest in New South Wales.  The Australasian Chronicle was a general paper, but with a solid Catholic agenda.  Its first editor, William Duncan, was a young Catholic schoolteacher recruited by Polding from Aberdeen.

William Duncan

William Duncan

The main shareholders were a group of Catholic businessmen.  Newspapers at the time were rarely profitable.  There were at least a dozen competing for sales and advertising in Sydney during the 1840s, so none of these businessmen can have expected to make a profit from their investment.   But they did like to interfere occasionally in editorial policy.

Finally Duncan had had enough.  According to his unpublished Autobiography, in the Mitchell Library, he resigned from the Chronicle at the end of 1842, when one of the businessmen ordered him to fudge the Ship News.

Shipping lists appeared in every newspaper then.  They reported shipping movements, in and out of the port, lists of passengers, and details of cargoes.  They are a boon to genealogists today – and in 1842, they set prices for imports.  Duncan’s unnamed merchant knew that the China fleet was due soon – and that once it arrived, the price of his stockpile of old tea would be in free fall.  Would Duncan hold back news of the first ship’s arrival for another few days?

Duncan wouldn’t.  Either he or the shareholder would have to go – and finding another editor was much easier than finding another financial backer for the paper.

Duncan tried unsuccessfully to start another newspaper, went bankrupt, and eventually came to Brisbane as Collector of Customs.  He became an important public intellectual in the Moreton Bay settlement.

But he never forgot that anonymous capitalist who had forced him out of the editorship of the Chronicle, and his outrage at his lack of editorial independence.

Fortunately that sort of distortion of the truth in the interest of a shareholder could never happen today.

Note: The story of Lady Strathmore is told in Wendy Moore, Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband met his Match (2009)

My posts from this time 2011 (when I clearly must have been hyperactive!):
Carmine at the End of the World, 29 January 2011
The Blood Libel – and Sarah Palin, 31 January 2011
Heroes and Helicopters, 1 February 2011

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