Monthly Archives: June 2012

Gina and Rose: A Battle of Wills

Gina Rinehart is on her way to becoming the richest person on the planet and gaining control of the highly influential Fairfax Media, publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Age and Australian Financial Review. A new book has just been published on Rinehart and an ABC Four Corners profile aired this week. Rinehart’s looming presence is everywhere.
Fourteen years ago David Leser interviewed Rinehart at the height of her poisonous decade-long struggle with her former step-mother, Rose Porteous. She hated the story, and has since declined almost every interview request.
The story that follows is a Shakespearean drama of the highest order – a family feud to end them all, the lonely rich girl daughter versus the garrulous, Filipino widow, claims of deathbed bullying, stolen wills, adulterous plottings and an endless trail of litigation. At stake, then and now? The vast minerals empire of the late Lang Hancock, so-called “King of the Pilbara.”

Gina_Rinehart_and_Rose_Hancock_by_David_Leser

NO-ONE DESERVES TO DIE LIKE Lang Hancock died. Put aside
the cystic kidneys and renal failure, his near-gangrenous legs, and the heart disease and pulmonary congestion that eventually caused him to drown in his own fluids on the morning of March 27, 1992. It was the psychological anguish more than the physical disintegration that so tormented the old man in his last days; the knowledge that whatever control he might have exercised over people and minerals during a ‘rogue bull’s’ lifetime was about to be extinguished in the most perverse of ways.

This was Lang Hancock’s worst nightmare: a fight for the spoils between the two women in his life; in this case, his only daughter, Gina Rinehart, and his third wife, Rose Hancock. They had been limbering up for battle almost from the day Gina hired Rose as the family housekeeper. Now, in his death throes, the fog was lifting and old Lang could see the grotesque outlines of war. He could also see the lawyers dancing on his grave. That’s why – according to Rose-he let out a scream that reverberated through the guesthouse of his Perth mansion in the seconds before his heart stopped. He realised he’d been betrayed by his daughter into depriving his estate of any assets, and that Rose, his love object, his china doll, his youth drug for nine-and-a-half years, had been disinherited, along with the other beneficiaries of his last will and testament.
On the other hand, if you listen to Gina, Lang Hancock might have experienced a different epiphany. If he screamed at all-which she seriously doubts-it would have been because he’d finally twigged to the fact that his wife never loved him. It had been a confidence trick from day one.
The animal cry from the bedroom was, therefore, the howl of a man who’d taken out a restraining order against his wife too late.

To download this chapter from David’s book ‘In the Whites of their Eyes‘, click here.

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Lady Mary Fairfax

Lady Mary FairfaxThere’s been blood on the floor of the Fairfax newsrooms this week with the announcement of nearly 2000 job losses amongst journalists and printers over the next three years, and the scaling down of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age from broadsheets to tabloids. Many blame Fairfax’s sliding fortunes on the internet revolution and the slowness by the Fairfax board to respond to changing technology. But as David Leser writes, the rot set in during the late 1980s when young Warwick Fairfax returned from America brandishing an MBA from Harvard University and strong Christian convictions to take over John Fairfax Ltd, the company his father, Sir Warwick had run in one position or another for the better part of 50 years. Young Warwick’s ambitions were aided and abetted by his mother (Lady) Mary Fairfax in what became both tragedy and farce for the House of Fairfax.

THE TEARS HAVE DRIED AND Lady (Mary) Fairfax is leaning forward
on the sofa clutching her letters and photographs. The butler is
hovering just beyond the reception room and her PR man is looking
anxiously at the floor. ‘Now, do I seem like a person who is interested in
revenge?’ she asks in a deep whisper. The question comes tumbling out
at the end of a two-hour talk-fest brimming with gushy memories and
savage recriminations. Later, serving a lunch of braised chicken and apricot
souffle, she pursues her defence: ‘What sort of character do you think I
am? You tell me.’

What can one say? After 32 years in the public eye; after a rumoured
love affair that scandalised society; after a harrowing divorce trial, a cele-
brated remarriage; after a welter of extraordinary parties with an endless
array of famous guests; and, now, with an Australian media empire in ruin
and a family filled with bad blood, it is no simple question to answer.

Is she one of the most monstrously misunderstood Women in Australian
history, or is she as deceptive as she is clever? Is she the instigator of a
company takeover gone disastrously wrong or the victim of markets, rnale
chauvinism, banks, bad advice, bad luck-and a son, Warwick, who was
always hopelessly out of his depth?

Is she a manipulative, scheming woman, hungry for power, wealth and
status? Or a tireless worker for the arts and charity, as well as a generous,
fun-loving hostess and friend? Is she a family maker or an empire breaker?
A proud matriarch who frequently owns up to only three children or a
tormented mother of four? Is she a Jewess or a Christian? Does she sit
atop staggering wealth or horrendous losses? Is she a figure of romance or
of vengeance?

And is it Mary or Marie?

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How To Live In The Now: Eckhart Tolle

Okay, I’ve joined the new social media. My Facebook is up and running. Twitter is tweeting. My blog is blogging. My smart phone is smarting. The old telephone keeps ringing. The fax has stopped working but the email inbox is a tidal wave that King Canute can’t stop. It reminds me of why I was drawn to Eckhart Tolle, and why I should come back to him.

How To Live In The Now - Eckhart Tolle by David LeserHere’s an admission. I take Eckhart Tolle to bed with me every night. I share him with others, of course, but he’s the constant companion. He’s the one that’s always there. Sometimes when I don’t sleep I turn to him for comfort or advice. At other times, deep in the grip of some dreamstate, I feel him guarding the night like my own personal shepherd.

We’ve never met in person – although that’s about to change – but I can honestly say I love him. I love what he has to say and how he says it in those German-laced dulcet tones of his. Yes, he’s even on my ipod favourites playlist! And I’m happy to say my wife fully understands our relationship. She’s an admirer too, although hers is not as deep a bond as mine. Call it a case of “each according to their needs.”

A few years ago I foisted him on my unsuspecting, but surprisingly receptive, 80 year-old father, then onto my brother and sister who’d actually seen the light months earlier. Last year my 19 year-old daughter took him with her all through Europe. She says he’s now become her friend too.

I know what you might be thinking. That we’ve all stumbled badly, lost our moorings and joined some wild-eyed religious cult. In fact the opposite is true. We’ve found … let me speak for myself  … I’ve found something deep inside myself that has always been there. It just needed a perfect stranger, a pixie of a man with shining eyes, to point the way.

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Ethics in Journalism

Here’s my recent chat with George Negus on ABC North Coast radio with Joanne Shoebridge. We discussed media ethics in the wake of the Craig Thompson affair, and the collapse of the old business model in funding investigative journalism.

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Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

The Canadian teenage superstar has just turned 18 and the Justin Juggernaut continues. David Leser recalls the Bieber tour Down Under and his awakening to Bieber Fever.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never by David Leser

Photo by Pacific Coast News

The tender hearts of Australia’s female youth are probably still palpitating, but now that he has departed our shores it might be a good time to get some perspective on the phenomenon that is Justin Bieber.

Never mind if there are those of you who’ve only just heard of him – I, too, was living under a rock marked `Paleolithic’ until recently – this is the 17 year-old from Stratford, Canada, who, is now re-defining fame and the history of pop culture.

Consider this: Nine million albums sold worldwide in his first year as a professional performer; earnings of over $100 million in 12 months; one billion viewers on YouTube, 9 million Twitter followers, nearly 17 million Facebook friends, a best-selling book, a 3-D movie about himself, two performances at the White House, appearances on Oprah, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, David Letterman, Saturday Night Live and a host of others, sell-out tours across America, Europe and Australia. And all this before the singer with the Cupid smile can vote or drink in his own hometown.

Think Frank Sinatra in 1942 when he nearly caused the walls of the Paramount Theatre in New York to cave in, such was the commotion from his teenage fans. Think Elvis Presley in 1956 after he sparked near riots with his smouldering good looks and voice, not to mention his on-stage gyrations. Think the Beatles who, during the 1960s, triggered a worldwide hysteria that was to become forever known as “Beatlemania.”

Yes, think all the pop acts of contempory history that have caused the tweeny thermometer to sizzle and melt – Old Blue Eyes, The King, the Fab Four, the Monkees, David Cassidy, Michael Jackson, the Backstreet Boys (for a moment anyway) – and Justin Bieber is now a glittering star in the same firmament. Only he’s done it faster.

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Julian Assange: The Most Wanted Man In The World

As Julian Assange awaits a British Supreme Court challenge to his extradition to Sweden this story looks at the early life of a computer wizard who became one of the most wanted men in the world.

Nearly two decades ago in the hills outside Melbourne Julian Assange would go to sleep in the early hours of the morning dreaming of police raids. He would hear footsteps on the driveway gravel, see shadowy figures hovering near his house, and imagine armed police bursting through his backdoor at dawn.

Julian Assange: The Most Wanted Man In The World

Photograph: Carmen Valino

He was often paranoid and exhausted, mainly because he’d been up all night hacking his way into Australian and overseas computers. His lack of sleep compounded his paranoia. He believed the police were watching him, tapping his phone and about to raid his house.

He was dead right about that.

In late October 1991, this 20 year-old computer wizard was a key member of an elite underground movement in Melbourne known as International Subversives, arguably the most sophisticated hacking group on the planet.

Comprising three brilliant, obsessive young men from dysfunctional family backgrounds – they met initially on computer bulletin board systems, not in person – the group had managed to break into some of the most secure networks in the world, including NASA, the Naval Surface Warfare Centre in Virginia and the Pentagon itself.

We know this because Julian Assange was to tell us himself six years later in a book called Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, published to great international acclaim in 1997. Written by Australian post-graduate student, Suelette Dreyfus, with Assange’s close co-operation, Underground lifted the lid on the exploits of this rogue sub-culture operating out of Australia’s second largest city.

Their maxim was: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.”

The book, in part a ghost-written autobiography of Assange’s early life, never actually revealed the names of the Melbourne hackers, but rather online nicknames such as Phoenix, Electron, Prime Suspect, Trax and Mendax.

Court documents and biographical details on the Wikileaks website would later show that Mendax was none other than Julian Assange. He’d chosen his moniker from Horace’s splendide mendax, meaning “nobly untruthful.”

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Heath Ledger

Two years after Heath Ledger scandalised sections of middle America with his near-miraculous performance as a gay cowboy, he would light up the screen with another tour de force, this time as the lovelorn, heroin-soaked poet, Dan, in the Australian cult movie, Candy.

Little known outside Australia, this film was based on a loosely autobiographical book of the same name written by Australian author, Luke Davies. In the film Ledger somehow managed to find his way inside the twisted, twilight world of the drug addict.

"Heath Ledger"

I pull the syringe from her arm and drop it on the table and hold my thumb down over the tiny hole I’ve made. I release the tie with my other hand. Candy looks down at her arm like a child who’s relieved that the innoculation is over. Then she says, mmmm, and her facial muscles relax and she lies back on the bed and says, that is heaps better. Heaps better. Fuck oh God. Fuck fuck fuck. This is the best. Oh God, this is awesome.

This was – as the New York Times commented of Ledger’s role – acting of the first order. “Ledger looks and plays the part of the scheming user exceptionally well. He’s deep in the character’s skin right from the start.”

Ledger and his co-star, Abbie Cornish – who recently appeared opposite Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age – had received their tutoring from an expert, a heroin addict belonging to a Sydney group called “Proud Users.”

“Abbie and Heath got lots of lessons with a prosthetic arm on how to inject,” the film’s producer, Margaret Fink told Vanity Fair. “They had instructions from an expert … and Heath was as convincing as one could have been.”

In the wake of Ledger’s death last week in a New York apartment, it is tempting to now speculate that Ledger simply took his heroin classes too seriously. One Australian tabloid newspaper asserted as much by reporting that Ledger had spent several days at a drug rehabilitation facility battling an addiction to heroin following his separation last year from American actress, Michelle Williams.

At the time of writing there was no way of confirming this. What could be confirmed was that Heath Ledger’s death had shattered his family and closest friends, as well as the proud and close-knit Australian film industry.

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Audette Exel – High Flyer

She built a career on making millions for the

rich, but her true achievement has been using

her legal and financial nous to make money

for the world’s poorest. David Leser meets the

ISIS Foundation’s Audette Exel in Kathmandu.

Audette Exel: Story by David Leser

Audette Exel hugs a Nepalese child whose life she saved.

To enter the Alice in Wonderland-like existence of Audette Exel, you could do worse than go down the rabbit hole and poke your head up into the ancient former kingdom of Nepal. Weddings are erupting around the capital, Kathmandu, with flourishes of trumpets and beating drums. Cows amble across the street amid dust storms and endless traffic jams, vying for space with urchins, holy men and hawkers, all under the looming presence of the Himalayan mountains.
A monkey passes Exel’s hotel room as she works via email on a half-billion-dollar sale of a European banking group. The negotiations are crucial. If successful, they will represent one of the biggest European financial transactions of 2012. This is just before breakfast.

After breakfast, Exel visits some of the children she and her organisation, the ISIS Foundation, have rescued from child traffickers in the remotest part of the country, children taken from their homes under false pretences and imprisoned in appalling conditions.

The children are hugging her, squeezing her, holding her hand. An 11-year-old boy who almost died from a hole in the heart before being saved by Exel and her team won’t let her go.

Later that afternoon, Exel works on forging ties between her Nepalese staff and her manager in Uganda, the other country where her organisation has saved the lives of thousands of mothers and their children.

“If you want to know me,” the former corporate lawyer and banker says as she greets me at the door, a flourish of blonde hair, blue eyes and Nepalese silk, “you have to know me in this context. The truth of me is here, it’s not dressed up in high heels and a business suit in Sydney.”

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