The End of An Era


Like many Australians, I spent Christmas and Boxing Day in a daze, eating and drinking with family, bouncing friends’ babies on my knee and running after manic toddlers who’d had too many presents and a surfeit of sugar.

So when, on my way back to the Big Smoke on 27 December, I tuned in to Radio National and heard the news that KP had kicked the bucket, I nearly ran off Melbourne’s newest toll-road in shock.

Leaving aside the issue of whether a man who boasted of paying only 10 cents in the dollar of his company tax  – and thought (apparently along with our current Prime Minister and other supporters) that giving around 0.1 per cent of his net worth to charity each year somehow made up for it  – should recoup some of that measly contribution via a tax-payer funded State memorial service, the timing of Packer’s passing is hugely symbolic.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

KP shuffling off on the day of the Boxing Day cricket Test?! Just 48 hours after his last big deal to either stitch up the footy rights for Channel 9 or, as has eventuated, force Channels 7 and 10 to make an offer that will mean huge financial losses for years?! So soon after his son and heir’s amnesiac performance at the One.Tel court circus?! And at the end of a year in which Packer’s Nine Network slipped, after decades of dominance, from its seemingly impregnable position at the top of the TV tree; a year that had, despite the wonder of a conservative Senate majority, failed to deliver the much longed-for relaxation of cross-media ownership laws?!

Talk about the end of an era.

It would seem, though, that Packer knew the game was up, and not just for his embattled body.

In 2005, for the first time in years, Channel Nine’s claim to be the popular voice of the nation started to look a little shaky. A series of high-profile defections to Nine’s main rival, Kerry Stokes’s Seven Network, was followed by the ignominious departure of David Gyngell, son of the ‘father of Australian TV’ and a close personal friend of James Packer, from the network’s top job, clearing the way for the return of Sam Chisholm. Chisholm’s inability to stem the flow of viewers from Nine to Seven, Ten, and even SBS highlights just how much he and his late boss have been living in the 70s.

It’s widely known that James Packer doesn’t share his father’s obsessive interest in television and, despite his disastrous early foray into the new-media game via One.Tel, he has a more highly developed understanding of the increasing impact of online and digital communications for the realms of public information and entertainment (where TV traditionally ruled the roost).

Prevailing wisdom has it that James sees the future of PBL in casinos and online gaming, and has no interest in being a media mogul in the 20th-century, Randolph Hearst sense that underpinned his father’s wealth and power. This is surely partly a matter of personality, but it also indicates that James understands, in a way his father could not or, more likely, would not, that the days of the media proprietor as arbiter of public tastes, guardian of public morals and purveyor of political power are coming to a close.

One need only look at the largely forgotten about-face performed by John Howard on the issue of cross-media ownership in the lead up to his 1996 election victory to see proof of the power and influence that Packer Senior wielded in Canberra. In 1991, Howard and all but two of his eventual ministers signed a petition opposing the sale of Fairfax to any media mogul. Five years later, in time for his election win, Howard had abandoned this commitment and promised a ‘full public review’ of the media ownership laws introduced by Paul Keating (laws, by the way, that earned Keating years of relentless character attacks by PBL, including the infamous 60 Minutes piggery story).

Kerry’s appreciation of Howard’s policy turnaround can be gauged by his generous endorsement of Howard’s Prime Ministerial credentials, which came via a personal appearance by the Big Man on his Nine Network during the election campaign.

Packer came closest to getting his heart’s desire in 2002, when then-Communications Minister Richard Alston proposed legislation to abolish restrictions on both cross-media and foreign ownership, virtually handing Fairfax to Packer on a plate, and making it possible for Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited to buy a television station. The plan was thwarted, as were so many Government plans in the early 2000s, by the principled stand of Independent Brian Harradine.

While many believed last year’s unexpected Senate majority would embolden the Howard Government to ram through changes to both cross-media and foreign ownership laws, this was one ideological change that fell off the agenda in 2005.

Current Communications Minister Helen Coonan is pushing the barrel beyond the simple removal of ownership restrictions that were so hotly pursued under Alston’s reign, but the issue of competition between an Australian media monopoly such as PBL and ‘foreign’ investors (which has, in practical terms, only ever meant Murdoch), remains at the heart of the battle.

Thanks to Bill Leak

However, despite James Packer’s Christmas wish in 1996 – broadcast on Channel 9  – that Santa would stuff Fairfax into his already bulging stocking, and his personal lobbying of Coalition backbenchers for the relaxation of cross-media restrictions the following year, there’s been little evidence that the fourth generation Packer scion has pursued the issue since.

So, with Kerry giving up the ghost and James no longer much interested in acquiring a broadsheet newspaper, what happens to the battle for control of Australia’s commercial media? Will the absence of Kerry Packer alter the deliberations in Canberra over media ownership laws? Was Murdoch’s generous tribute to his erstwhile rival coloured by the satisfaction of knowing that his own agenda will now be easier to achieve?

Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: the gushing compliments paid to Packer Senior on the occasion of his death prove that the power wielded by media moguls of his stature compromise the democratic process.

The Prime Minister described Australia’s greatest tax minimiser as having a ‘passionate commitment to the interests of Australia and the interests of the Australian people,’ while Kim Beazley apparently believes that Packer’s ‘views were underpinned with a profound patriotism and a nationalist approach.’

While it’s true that Packer, being a man of the 1970s, was an old-fashioned protectionist in many ways, his views were underpinned by little other than concern for his own hip pocket, and his commitment to the interests of the Australian people extended exactly as far as those interests coincided with his own.

But the Packer media empire was inherited as long ago as 1998 (despite the common perception that Kerry was still in charge) by James Packer, and the leaders of our major political parties dare not offend the power behind the nation’s most influential television channel.

In short, the needs of one wealthy family, with the power of the media behind it, have been allowed to influence public policy for a long time. Just how long such influence remains an issue depends as much on the changing forces of communications technology and the interests of 21st century me
dia owners, such as James Packer, as it does on government policy and the forces of the global market.

The days when the majority of voters are influenced by what ‘Brian told me’, as that most depressing of Nine News slogans trumpeted throughout the 1990s, are fading fast. Online news and information are rapidly taking over from television news bulletins, and the attraction of the ownership of a daily paper as the route to political power has been well and truly sideswiped by the growing influence of electronic, personalised communications technology.

The fourth estate in its traditional form simply doesn’t deliver the inheritance it used to.

Kerry Packer may have been known as a relentlessly pragmatic businessman, not prone to self-reflection and with little appreciation of the aesthetic, but the timing of his departure from the mortal coil could not have been more symbolic.

The fact that he chose to give up the fight on Boxing Day, when in the past he had battled seemingly insurmountable assaults on his health, indicates that he knew his time had come. While his much-abused and over-worked body was breaking down, perhaps Packer also realised that his once formidable influence on Australian life had come to an end.

And if he was no longer going to be Kerry the Kingmaker, then maybe life just wasn’t worth living.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.