Thanks for the Memories: Australian Media After the Packers

During the lazy lacuna of the 2005 Christmas break, the Australian "silly season" was suddenly interrupted by the serious when the country's richest man, media magnate Kerry Packer, died of kidney failure. One of the most influential, colorful and controversial figures in Australia, Packer's death marked the end of a momentous era.

During the lazy lacuna of the 2005 Christmas break, the Australian "silly season" was suddenly interrupted by the serious when the country's richest man, media magnate Kerry Packer, died of kidney failure. One of the most influential, colorful and controversial figures in Australia, Packer's death marked the end of a momentous era.

Through Australian Consolidated Press, Packer owned the Nine Network, one of the largest television networks in Australia, and some of the country's top-selling magazines. A shrewd businessman known for taking a "hands-on" approach to his paper's editorial content, Packer was a larger than life figure who revelled in shocking politicians and the public. When Packer was negotiating with the Australian Cricket Board for the right to televise games, he bluntly summed up the way managed his business: "There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?"

Packer left an indelible mark on Australia and in honor of his passing, cricket matches observed a minute's silence; tributes flowed in from politicians, business leaders and charities; special editions of newspapers, magazines and television shows were produced. However, considering he was a notable tax avoider, a state memorial service – a rare honor for a businessman – was his most controversial memorial.

While Packer's death radically altered Australia's media landscape, within 18 months it shifted even further when Packer's only son and heir, James Packer, split the family business into separate media and gaming operations, and sold down his media stake to a mere 25 percent to CVC Asia Pacific. For almost a century, the Packers loomed over Australia's media with thunderous proportions. And then suddenly, they were gone.

But unlike Kerry's passing, no mass outpouring of grief, jubilation or curiosity accompanied the dissolution of the Packer media dynasty. The story was largely confined to the business pages and has really only been of interest to media insiders. After living with the powerful and much-publicized Packer family for four generations, most Australians have no idea who or what CVC is.

Unlike the flamboyant Packers, CVC Asia Pacific is a faceless corporation that is part of a global private equity group, managing billions of dollars in funds focused on management buyouts. It took a week of hounding by the nation's press for the man who will manage the former Packer assets, Adrian MacKenzie, to even agree to be photographed. Unsurprisingly, the 39-year-old James Packer's recent spectacular marriage on the French Riviera to model Erica Baxter attracted more attention.

With a vast landmass but small population, Australia had struggled to maintain independent media proprietaries. Over the last half-century, the Australian media came to be presided over by three family dynasties: Fairfax, centered on the venerable Sydney Morning Herald broadsheet; Murdoch, created by Sir Keith Murdoch in Melbourne and taken across the world and into cyberspace by his son Rupert; and the Packers.

When the Fairfax empire crumbled in 1990 following a disastrous privatization bid, the Packers and Murdochs remained alone to dominate Australia's newspaper and magazine circulations, move in and out of radio and free-to-air television, invest in pay television, intimidate politicians, fascinate society columnists, and manipulate cricket and football contests to maximize media revenues. Through intent, apathy or ineptitude, successive Australian governments have allowed the major players to carve up new markets between them. As the University of Sydney's Professor Rodney Tiffen has observed, complacency and journalistic passivity are as much a danger as is partisan distortion when many cities have a single daily newspaper. And the complacency extends to the public: while Australia has one of the most concentrated press ownership amongst established democracies, there is little evidence that media policy has ever been an election issue.

The Packer patriarch, R.C. Packer, made his name and his fortune as a thrusting, modernizing Sydney journalist in the 1910s and 1920s. But, as each generation has evolved — from Frank, to Kerry, to James — its journalistic credentials have devolved. Sir Frank was adept at spotting journalistic talent and enabled some fine journalism to flourish at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Bulletin news magazine, just as he used his publications as bludgeons to advance conservative political causes. But to Kerry, the newspapers were simply loss-makers, which he helped persuade his father to sell to Murdoch in 1972. Kerry continued publishing the Bulletin, with its modest circulation, and supported the launch of a classy Sunday-morning program on Nine – viewing them as prestige media outlets capable of setting the agenda. However, he was more interested in television and magazines than newspapers, and was constantly on the move, shifting assets and political allegiances, and identifying new opportunities in sport and gambling.

When a mogul dies or divests, the media immediately begins talking about their "legacy." From the acres of newsprint following Kerry Packer’s death it was possible to deduce that he left his son with a media and entertainment behemoth to run, professional athletes with healthy pay packets, and a nation with numerous gambling palaces. The Packer legacy must also be said to embrace what else the family’s influence helped to deny Australia. Fierce lobbying to protect the Nine television network was responsible for Australia not receiving pay television until the mid-1990s; for the lack of new broadcasting technologies like standard (rather than high) definition digital television; for opening up free-to-air services; and for a fourth commercial television network being constantly put on the backburner.

Australian media policy has tended to be shaped by the power, real or perceived, of Murdoch and Packer. The Howard government’s recent lifting of restrictions on cross-media and foreign ownership has not resulted in the established dynasties buying up assets in quite the way feared by advocates of media diversity, but with Australia experiencing a bull market and a mining boom, a new player has entered the media fray. Private equity players have pounced, seeing Australian media groups as a business like any other, and looking to extract a higher margin before selling out in the next few years.

For some time there had been signs that James Packer felt no particular affinity for the old media as he left much of the running of the media group to a small group of executives. The Packer legacy is dead, leaving Australia’s media to a new generation of anonymous corporate control.

_Dr. Bridget Griffen-Foley is the author of two books about the Packer dynasty and the Director of the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University in Sydney.