EXCLUSIVE: Billionaire mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s charitable organisation, the Minderoo Foundation, has come under fire from award-winning writers and others from Western Australia’s arts scene for sneakily trying to obtain the copyright of authors and poets forever. Serkan Ozturk reports.
Last year, a New York Times article titled ‘Who is the Bad Art Friend’ caused a sensation with its revelations of betrayal, microaggressions, plagiarism, lawsuits, and kidney donation in the small-scale writing scene of Boston.
Now tongues are wagging in Western Australia’s writing scene and beyond as a new contender for worst art friend rises in the form of mining mogul, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, and his family’s so-called philanthropic organisation, Minderoo: with the billionaire’s philanthropic foundation now being linked to exploitation of writers’ work without offer of payment, and exerting editorial pressure on the state’s most popular literary publisher.
The Minderoo Foundation is a private organisation, co-founded by Andrew Forrest and his wife, Nicola Forrest. The name Minderoo is taken from the Forrest family’s ancestral sheep station near Onslow, one of the foundations of the Forrests’ inherited wealth and the site of a major massacre of First Nation people in the 19th century.
The Minderoo Foundation happened to be a topic of soft focus and friendly PR just a week or so ago on ABC TV’s Australian Story.
In the episode that aired on April 25, Nicola Forrest discussed in some detail the thinking and motivation behind the Minderoo Foundation, an organisation she was at pains to mention was not set up to assuage a billionaire’s guilty conscience of plundering and pillaging the planet’s resources.
Literature in WA is one object of Minderoo’s philanthropic attention.
But in the game of words, ‘philanthropy’ and ‘ethical’, seem to take a different slant when it comes to Minderoo’s activity in the WA writing sector.
‘Transactional’ may be a better description.
It all kicked off when Claire G. Coleman, a Noongar writer, uncovered a strange clause hidden deep in the terms and conditions of entry for The Best Australian Yarn, a writing competition run and funded by a collaboration between Minderoo, Seven West Media, and the state’s peak writing organisation, Writing WA.
Coleman posted a screen shot of the relevant clause, 3.23.1, on her Twitter account on March 13. She called the clause “extremely problematic” and expressed concern that, “If you enter the prize, even if not shortlisted or anything, you are granting @westaustralian and any of their partner companies perpetual rights to publish WITHOUT FEE”.
Noongar writer Claire G. Coleman was the first to highlight the bizarre terms and conditions of the competition (Image: Twitter / Supplied)
The clause in question was worded in such a way that it does seem to grant Minderoo and Seven West unlimited “perpetual” rights to publish any of the competition entrants’ work without payment in any form the organisations chose, and to rights for “the amendment, abridgement, or modification to the entry or any part of the entry”. Coleman’s post attracted several retweets, warning writers of the unusual and onerous condition of entering The Best Australian Yarn.
Alison Croggon, the Arts editor of The Saturday Paper, was just one notable person who responded to Coleman’s tweet, describing the terms and conditions of the competition as “disgraceful”.
Minderoo, Seven West, and Writing WA may have become aware of the controversy, though no public comment was offered by the organisations at the time.
RELATED: “KERRY STOKES & CHANNEL 7 ARE HOPPING TO THROW ME IN JAIL OVER JOURNALISM”! Kangaroo Court’s Shane Dowling has arrest warrant issued after being sentenced to 10 months prison for contempt over stories he never wrote
When another WA writer, Alan Fyfe, who was shortlisted for the 2019 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, repeated Coleman’s findings on April 26, in a Facebook post, the wording of the clause had been altered, but not by much. It now granted Minderoo and Seven West these extraordinary rights over the authors’ works, regardless of winning status, for a period of 12 months. That Minderoo and Seven West’s lawyers deemed it necessary to quietly change the “perpetual” period down to a year at the first sign of public criticism about the competition’s terms and conditions suggests even they perhaps had an inkling they were over-reaching when they first inserted the clause.
Fyfe’s post, again, attracted several shares among writers and writing groups in Western Australia. Prominent literary figures, from a WA Premier’s Award winner to a former editor and vice president of W. W. Norton, New York, expressed concern over the competition and the exploitation of writers’ work.
Alone among the concerned voices, deputy chair of Writing WA, Holden Sheppard, was quick to spin some damage control worthy of a Clive Palmer campaign, when he argued, “I suspect they would not actually exploit the license for entries that are unsuccessful – the wording here is possibly just a legal thing of ensuring that all entries have agreed, at the point of entry, to license those rights IF they win. I don’t believe there’s any bad faith or ill intent behind this. This is a good competition and has been developed in collaboration with Writing WA and I do not think it should be viewed as intending to exploit writers because that’s not what this competition is about – it’s seeking to do something big and bold for writing in WA and Australia more widely, and to promote and financially reward many writers in various categories”.
When award winning journalist, Chris Pash, commented “Not getting paid is a sin. Have alerted the ASA”, Sheppard replied in his capacity as deputy chair that Writing WA “are onto it”.
Writer Alan Fyfe, shortlisted for the 2019 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, was another award-winning author put off by the competition’s onerous terms and conditions which were quietly changed from a “perpetual” period to 12 months following public criticism (Image: Facebook / Supplied)
This raises serious questions about the collaboration between Writing WA and Minderoo. Were the terms and conditions vetted by Writing WA in the first place? Do they support their deputy chair’s dismissal of writers’ concerns? Do they support the implied exclusion of First Nation writers such as Coleman, who have every reason to fear the theft of intellectual property?
Writing WA was contacted by True Crime News Weekly for their take on these issues but has refused to provide any public comment to our queries so far.
However, on its website, Writing WA claims to uphold “honesty” as one of its core values. “The requirement for honesty as a key value invokes likewise a requirement for responsibility and care in taking action. It demands ethical operations, transparency and due consideration, both in the organisation and individuals,” the arts organisation claims.
Further, Writing WA goes onto state that “advocacy for writers, writing and writing-related organisations is our core purpose and should underpin our organisational decisions and strategy”.
Going dead quiet in the face of media questions brought about by concerns from authors and poets doesn’t seem to be the right way about advocating for writers, but what would we know? We’re only independent journalists.
The reasons a company like Seven West could have for this exploitation might be easily guessed – free content is an attractive scam for a modern media company. A prize that offers $30,000 to an overall winner is likely to attract some of the country’s top writers, even if, for a mining billionaire like Forrest, the amount is roughly equivalent to three months wages for someone paid to clean the toilets on a mine site. True Crime News Weekly does not mean to imply that cleaning mine site toilets is not a demanding occupation that doesn’t deserve high wages. But, for the generally lower paid craft of creative writing, $30,000 is a tempting figure.
What is less clear is what the Forrest family’s Minderoo Foundation wants from rights over authors’ work, or why a representative of WritingWA may be so hot to defend a dodgy contract. A brief look into some of Minderoo’s operations in the WA writing sector might provide some clarity.
Sheppard, for example, is an author published by WA’s largest local publisher, Fremantle Press. His big break came when he won the prestigious T. A. G. Hungerford Award in 2018, a prize run by Fremantle Press for unpublished manuscripts, and he has featured prominently at Fremantle Press events and in subsequent promotion of the Hungerford. Sheppard’s first novel, Invisible Boys, too was published by Fremantle Press in 2019. Sheppard, whose real name is Kristian Guagliardo, was also formerly host of the Fremantle Press podcast.
As with many WA arts organisations, the fingerprints of the Forrest family can be clearly found on Fremantle Press’ funding and operation. The 2021 Fremantle Press annual report offered “special acknowledgement to the Minderoo Foundation” among all its sponsors. The same report details a “Minderoo Emerging Editor” program, by which full-time editors for the press are funded by the Minderoo Foundation.
Bad Art Friend? Billionaire Andrew Forrest (Image: Wikipedia / Supplied)
A staff list shows two full-time editors at Fremantle Press and one of those editors is funded by the Forrest family through Minderoo. A second editor, Rachel Hanson, was hired directly from nine years work with SRK Consulting, a mining contractor that includes Forrest’s mining operation, Fortescue Metals, as an important client. With 100% of full-time editors having strong connections to WA mining, and one funded directly by the Forrest family, questions of editorial independence are a natural concern.
True Crime News Weekly contacted Fremantle Press to ask why a literary editor might be hired from a mining background, rather than from among the many primarily literary professionals in WA, and to ask if these connections had any editorial influence at the publishing house.
The CEO of Fremantle Press, Jane Fraser, responded to our query by email, claiming:
Fraser however chose to offer no comment whatsoever to questions surrounding the appropriateness of the employment of Hanson directly from a background in the mining sector.
But another Fremantle Press author, who spoke to True Crime News Weekly on condition of anonymity, had quite a different story to share about Minderoo’s influence at the publisher. The author explained that writers should be able to ask questions, criticise and speak truth to power.
“But the ongoing involvement of mining companies and their charities in the funding of publishers, festivals and so on makes this professionally risky,” the author told True Crime News Weekly.
“In the end, it feels safer to stay quiet.”
It was also just in 2015 when Seven West’s chairman, billionaire Kerry Stokes, hired Fremantle Press for a custom publishing job to create a book about the many Medieval and Renaissance objects he has collected.
It’s likely many authors feel compelled to stay quiet largely for economic reasons. There is intense competition for meagre funds in what constitutes Australia’s literary and writing scenes. Most well-known and even award-winning authors are lucky to ever clear $5,000-$10,000 from a book project, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. As such, with a limited and dwindling pool of money available many creatives are afraid to gently question the corporate hand that feeds them, let alone bite it, with competitions sometimes the only way to earn any real money from literary pursuits.
One of WA’s greatest living writers, Tim Winton, caused a sensation earlier this year at the closing event of the 2022 Perth Festival, when he used the platform to speak out against the influence of fossil fuel sponsorship in the arts, suggesting it would be impossible for artists to address climate change under these conditions.
“We’ve been sort of loomed over, we’ve been gaslit for so long, that we’re afraid to make this move,” the internationally renowned novelist remarked in his speech in February.
The evidence points to Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s influence in WA writing working in much the same odious way, creating a culture of fear and bullying, shockingly reinforced by partner organisations like Fremantle Press and Writing WA, that seeks to silence the state’s authors into complicity.
Though Minderoo’s co-founders have a very poetic interpretation of words like ‘philanthropy’, the four legal professionals on Minderoo’s staff list makes it doubtful they misunderstood any of the implications of clause 3.23.1 in the terms and conditions of the Best Australian Yarn competition.
Forget about Bad Art Friend. With power and money that dwarfs the personal feuds of sparsely published authors in the small Boston writing scene, Andrew Forrest is a convincing contender for the Worst Art Friend Ever. Meanwhile, it is also likely that the WA writing scene itself is a microcosm of Minderoo’s practices, thereby casting grave doubts over the ethics of the Forrest family’s involvement in all of Minderoo’s charitable activities.