Palmer’s Guardian

Yes, I’m on holiday this week but wouldn’t you know it that’s always the time your industry enters meltdown! The AFR today has an incredible story about the latest move in the “miners versus the government” debate. Clive Palmer is proposing to establish a Guardian-like trust for Australian media assets.

For those that don’t know, the UK Guardian is backed by the Scott Trust. From Wikipaedia:

The Trust was established in 1936 by John Scott, owner of the Manchester Guardian (as it then was) and the Manchester Evening News. After the deaths in quick succession of his father C. P. Scott and brother Edward, and consequent threat of death duties, John Scott wished to prevent future death duties forcing the closure or sale of the newspapers, and to protect the liberal editorial line of the Guardian from interference by future proprietors.

…The eight initial trustees of the 1948 Trust were all connected with the Manchester Guardian and Evening News, Ltd., and included four of C. P. Scott’s grandsons as well as the then editor of the M.G.A. P. Wadsworth. It has become normal practice for a Guardian journalist to be a member of the trust, though he or she is not considered to be a “representative” of the staff, as this may result in a conflict of interests.

…The Trust is responsible for appointing the editor of The Guardian (and those of the group’s other main newspapers) but apart from enjoining them to continue the paper’s editorial policy on “the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore”, has a policy of not interfering in their decisions. This arrangement tends to give editors a long tenure – for example, the present incumbent, Alan Rusbridger, has been there since 1995. GMG’s acquisition of The Observer, however, was followed by a quick succession of editors, amid reports of intrigue and accusations of interference.

In 1992, the Trust identified its central objective as being the following:

To secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity: as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to liberal tradition; as a profit-seeking enterprise managed in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
The Trust sees its main functions as being the following:
  • To secure the Trust’s own continuity by renewing its membership and by dealing with threats to its existence;
  • To monitor the organisation, financial management and overall strategy of the Group, holding the board accountable for its performance;
  • To appoint and ‘in extreme circumstances’ to dismiss the editors of The Guardian and The Observer,
  • To act as a ‘court of appeal’ in the event of any dispute between the editorial and managerial sides of the operation.

Now from the AFR:

Billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer has flagged plans to establish a Guardian newspaper-type “blind trust’’ to invest in Australian media to ensure diversity and stop independent newspapers going bust.

Mr Palmer, with net worth estimated at more than $5 billion, told The Australian Financial Review he was “looking at media very strongly’’ as an investment opportunity in ­partnership with other wealthy ­Australians who would contribute to a trust-type arrangement.

He made it clear Fairfax Media, the publisher of the Financial ReviewThe Sydney Morning Heraldand The Age, was at the top of his ­priorities list and said of the com­pany’s titles: “We’ve got to keep them going, and hopefully we can boost circulation.”

…As part of his free speech crusade, Mr Palmer said he was studying various ownership arrangements – including the Scott Trust that controls The Guardian in Britain – as a possible model in Australia where “you would put your money into a blind trust’’. This would preclude interference in editorial decisions. “You’d get a return and you’d get good journalism,’’ he said.

Mr Palmer said contributions to a trust would be capped at 5 per cent.

…He would not disclose the identities of other wealthy individuals who might invest in a media trust-type arrangement, but he said fellow miner Mrs Rinehart, who already has 12.58 per cent of Fairfax, was not party to his plans at this stage.

Mr Palmer would not preclude investment in other forms of media, including radio and television, but it was clear his prime interest was ­newspapers.

…Mr Palmer made it clear that capping the contributions to a trust would prevent any one individual exerting disproportionate influence.

This is a nice move by Mr Palmer. The Scott Trust is a darling of the UK liberal establishment and such a vehicle makes sense for Australian media assets given their vulnerability to both interests and commercial breakdown.

Moreover, if this is no more than a thought balloon, Mr Palmer can point the finger at everyone else’s callous disregard for Australian democracy.

If it comes to fruition, then Mr Palmer will also have bought himself some media protection. Although the proposed structure would defray ownership, it is still likely to apply a degree of moral suasion to editorial decisions about trustees. Editors are people too. That influence might be more or less than a listed structure with shareholders but would certainly be preferable to the implicit influence of a dominant shareholder.

The other question, of course, is what kind of values will the trust seek to perpetuate? All media has a point of view.

Still, in principle, this is a fine idea that I have toyed with trying to pull off myself on occasion.

 

Comments

  1. Will “remaining faithful to liberal tradition” be one of the objectives of Clive’s trust?

    • Don’t see why not: “Generally liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, capitalism, and the free exercise of religion”

      Of course there is a chance Clive may be historically inclined:

      “Liberals in the 19th century wanted to develop a world free from government intervention, or at least free from too much government intervention.”

      Or of modern persuasion, (one of my favourite modern thinkers):

      “Political philosopher John Gray identified the common strands in liberal thought as being individualist, egalitarian, meliorist, and universalist.”

      Gray describing the liberal temperament: “has been inspired by skepticism and by a fideistic certainty of divine revelation … it has exalted the power of reason even as, in other contexts, it has sought to humble reason’s claims”.

      and finally:
      “…scholars have identified the following major common facets of liberal thought: believing in equality and individual liberty, supporting private property and individual rights, supporting the idea of limited constitutional government, and recognizing the importance of related values such as pluralism, toleration, autonomy, and consent.”

      All very Clive Palmer, a bold and welcome direction.

  2. Load of rubbish, all he wants is for himself and his mining billionaire friends to control our media.

    There is no way in hell he would spend a cent on media independence in Australia, and him citing the Scott Trust is nothing but a distraction – in effect, whatever he does will be absolutely nothing like it.

  3. What kind of values might a Trust initiated by Clive Palmer seek to perpetuate ? Here’s some wild guesses

    – no sector should pay higher taxes than another
    – a mining tax will stop growth
    – businesses will no longer invest in this country with a mining tax in place
    – freedom of speech is a right we’ve fought for in many wars
    – the Labor Party is destroying the future opportunities of our children
    – if you want to go join Karl Marx in the Soviet Union, then why don’t you ?

    Ok, so not all bad news.

  4. And the point was?
    Some of the bullet points are well written.
    Have to agree would mak e a good basis of Trust.

  5. The report could have continued with the current Wikipedia article on The Guardian :-
    “At the beginning of October 2008, the Scott Trusts assets were transferred to a new limited company, The Scott Trust Limited, with the intention being that the original trust would be wound up”

    It was indeed wound up, and replaced in 2008 by The Scott Trust Limited, a company with broadly the same objectives but considerable differences in its constitution.