If Gina Rinehart ever gets her way and wins a spot on the Fairfax board, there’s one person she should ring for advice: Ita Buttrose.
If anyone knows about being a powerful woman in the still-macho world of media, it’s Ita. The publishing legend was the first woman to serve as a director of Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press and Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited.
Although Rinehart has none of her hands-on media experience, Buttrose thinks the mining magnate should be granted a spot on the Fairfax board. She suspects sexism – as well as Rinehart’s political persuasions – lie behind the board’s blocking tactics.
‘She deserves the right to be on the board,’ Buttrose, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Australian Women’s Weekly, told Crikey. ‘I think she’d be an asset. She brings business acumen and she has money to invest in the company if she wants to.
‘I can’t see why you wouldn’t want her. I find it an extraordinary decision.’
Buttrose says she suspects Rinehart’s gender has been a ‘contributing factor’ to the board’s rebuffs. ‘She a powerful woman and sometimes powerful women, I’m reliably told, frighten men… She wouldn’t be the first powerful woman to be blocked,’ she said.
Buttrose has previously defended Rinehart publicly but this is the first time she has called for her to be given a Fairfax board seat.
There are currently two women on the nine-member Fairfax board: Tourism Australia’s Sandra McPhee and Yarra Trams board member Linda Nicholls. A Fairfax spokesman notes that the company also has a female general counsel and company secretary in Gail Hambly.
Buttrose says it is a fallacy that Rinehart, who owns about 15 per cent of Fairfax shares, could use one or two board positions to change the editorial direction of the company’s mastheads.
‘I know – as someone who’s sat on three media boards – that an individual director cannot appoint an editor. It’s a collective decision,’ she said. ‘I don’t see how she could do damage to Fairfax – they’ve done it to themselves… As a shareholder, I share Gina Rinehart’s concern about the state of Fairfax stock.’
Buttrose says she respects Fairfax chairman and former Woolworths CEO Roger Corbett’s track record as a businessman, but added: ‘I think Roger’s been a bit stubborn about Gina’.
The Alzheimer’s Australia president says a recent episode of Q&A demonstrates that Rinehart is treated with a level of derision not suffered by wealthy businessmen. In the May 28 program, actor Miriam Margolyes described Rinehart as ‘fat and ugly’, comedian Barry Humphries joked about her ‘hole’, and journalist David Marr called her ‘greedy’.
Buttrose said host Tony Jones should have stepped in to stop the risqué banter: ‘I’ve never heard that said about a man. It was appalling and uncalled for. As an interviewer, you have to know when to stop it… She may be a private person but we all have feelings.’