By Jane Wardell
SYDNEY (Reuters) - When Australian mining mogul Gina Rinehart, one of the world's richest women, flew to Cambodia to meet former trafficked children whose education she was financing, she was showing a little known side of her character.
The "Pilbara Princess" is one of Australia's most written about personalities for her ruthless business dealings, a fortune from family mining interests and an endless string of lawsuits, including against her own children, to protect those riches.
She has not been feted for her softer side or public largesse. But during that Cambodia trip in 2010, Rinehart also took girls from an orphanage to the hairdresser and bought clothes, toiletries and refrigerators for them, moving the home's manager to tears.
It would have made for a perfect feel-good story, except that the 58-year-old Rinehart, the only child of one of Australia's legendary frontier miners, refused to talk about it, save in an article she wrote herself for an inflight magazine.
Her disdain for the mainstream media has never been hidden, but Rinehart is now building up a stake in that very industry, heightening concerns about a conflux of vested interests and media power.
In recent months, she has taken a 10 percent stake in free-to-air TV operator Ten Network Holdings
She is also engaged in a high-profile war with Fairfax Media
"She's part of a pattern of the mining industry asserting itself in very political ways," says David McKnight, an associate professor in Journalism and Media at the University of New South Wales.
"She's idiosyncratic and she has a personal agenda but she's also part of a really fundamental structural change in the Australian economy."
Rinehart's interest in media has coincided with an explosion of media interest in her, driven by her huge wealth.
A string of deals and booming commodity prices have helped her convert a modest inherited fortune into a staggering sum. Forbes in February estimated her to be worth $18 billion, making her the richest woman in Asia. Australia's BRW magazine subsequently named her the richest woman in the world, worth an estimated $29 billion. Rinehart herself claims to have increased her inheritance by 40,000 percent.
Helping fuel public fascination, Rinehart is fighting an acrimonious legal battle with three of her four children, who are trying to remove her as trustee of a multi-billion-dollar family trust.
Due back in court this week, Rinehart has tried unsuccessfully to have the hearings held behind closed doors and has issued subpoenas against The West Australian newspaper, seeking access to confidential sources following its reporting of the battle.
Despite her sometimes difficult relationship with the press, Rinehart has declared herself to be a "white knight" for Fairfax, the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review. She has issued an ultimatum to its chairman to improve the struggling company's performance or resign, but questions about her goals beyond that remain unanswered.
Rinehart, who seldom gives interviews, declined to comment for this article.
Many point to her father Lang Hancock's establishment of two newspapers, now defunct, in the 1960s and 1970s to espouse his right-wing ideas as a signal post for his daughter's intentions.
"I think it is all related and harks back to her father's views that the media is a useful vessel to get messages across and sway political policy," said Adele Ferguson, who spent 18 months researching Rinehart for a recently released unauthorized biography.
Lang Hancock is an enormous figure in Australia's mining history. Legend has it that he discovered the world's largest deposit of iron ore in Pilbara, Western Australia while flying low in a rocky gorge when piloting a light plane through a storm in the early 1950s.
He spent years lobbying the then government to remove a ban on exporting ore and made a fortune when they did, selling valuable tenements and partnering with some of the biggest mining names in the world.
A polarizing figure, Hancock proposed using small nuclear bombs to help mine the Outback, advocated secession for Western Australia and had business dealings with the brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His disparaging comments on the unemployed and Aborigines outraged liberals.
Rinehart appears to have inherited both the business sense and the bullish, take-no-prisoners characteristics of the man who called his only child "fella" as he took her on business meetings from the age of 13.
Rinehart was educated in Perth but has spent much of her life in the Pilbara, a 500,000-square-kilometre, or 190,000-square-mile stretch of ancient red earth, searing heat and still the single largest source of iron ore in the world.
Since her father's death in 1992 at the age of 82, Rinehart as executive chairman of Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd, has transformed her father's discovery into a company of global scale.
Her Hope Downs joint venture with iron ore giant Rio Tinto
A passionate nationalist and vocal climate change skeptic, Rinehart's opposition to taxes and calls for miners to be allowed exemptions from laws prohibiting the use of foreign labor have put her on a collision course with government and unions.
"I fear Australia's extraordinary success has never been in more jeopardy than right now because of the rising power of vested interests," Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan wrote in an opinion piece mentioning Rinehart and other mining magnates by name. "This poison has infected our politics and is seeping into our economy."
Rinehart's rising profile has put her back in the spotlight 20 years after a very public legal battle with her father's widow Rose Porteous, a Filipina housekeeper who married Hancock after Rinehart's mother died.
The decade-long court cases revealed salacious family details, references to black magic, hitmen and poison, and intimate moments between Hancock and Porteous, before the two women settled out of court without making details of the settlement public.
Since then, Rinehart has regularly been in court, battling her father's former business partner and mining giant BHP Billiton
But it is details of the latest battles with her children that have generated the most headlines.
Just days before the family trust was due to vest, Rinehart changed the vesting date to 2068 when her four children will be in their 80s and 90s.
The children are the offspring of Rinehart's first husband Greg Milton, who became a taxi driver after their divorce, and her second husband Frank Rinehart, who had moved to Australia after pleading guilty in the United States to criminal tax fraud. Frank Rinehart died of a heart attack in 1990.
Family e-mails made public as part of the trust case showed Gina Rinehart describing the elder trio of children of being lazy and spoilt, and warning that their security would be at risk if they persisted with the action. Typed missives often ended with "Regards Mother. Dictated not read."
Rinehart's criticisms rankle with John Hancock, 36, her eldest child and only son, who was dumped from the Hancock Prospecting board by his mother less than eighteen months after being appointed in 1997.
Hancock, who recently released a statement telling kidnappers not to bother with him as his mother would pay no ransom, now has a half-share in a start-up building company which hopes to revolutionize the industry with a product that removes the need for load-bearing concrete columns.
"I've got an MBA, I'm managing a company that is building houses in Western Australia and possibly around the world," Hancock told Reuters.
"I'm not really quite sure what she means via her repeated broadcasts about non-working or unable to administer something as simple as a trust," he adds. "What would satisfy her, I don't know, I don't have mining tenements because she has got them all in the family company."
Hancock's ability to talk about his mother, however, is limited by a series of gagging orders.
"I'm not allowed to disparage her; indeed my public comments tend to highlight her intelligence, but it's open slather (season) in disparaging the now adult children."
London-based Ginia Rinehart has sided with her mother in the dispute and has been rewarded as the heir apparent, an honor that has been passed from one to the other sibling over the years.
An insight into Rinehart's thinking came in a rare interview shortly after a brush with death following routine surgery in 2008.
"We all know far too many stories where the third generation just destroys everything the first two have built up and I certainly hope my family are different, because I've worked too hard and my father has worked too hard for it to be given away," she said.
Regardless of the outcome of her battle with Fairfax -- and with her children -- one thing seems certain.
"Rinehart is one of the most fascinating characters in Australia and is fast becoming an unstoppable force in business, the media and politics," says Ferguson, her unauthorized biographer. "We haven't seen anything yet. Australia is about to see a lot more of Gina."
(Editing by Lincoln Feast and Raju Gopalakrishnan)