When the 1991 parliamentary committee into the print media subpoenaed Kerry Packer, which proved to be one of the great theatrical events of the decade, I had the good fortune to be in the front row of the committee room.
As chairman of the Australian Press Council, I was called to give evidence that morning. Forgoing lunch, I remained in my seat for what I suspected was going to be, if not informative, at least entertaining. Earlier, when I arrived in Canberra, I was told the committee was meeting in camera and there would be a delay. I heard later that the ABC had asked permission to televise the hearing, a rare event then. I suspected that the committee would regret its decision. The nation was able to see how the committee reacted to Packer.
And that was remarkable. From the moment he entered the room, the members did not seem to be the same committee. The high point was when Jeannette McHugh asked a question relating to an alleged warehousing of shares to evade the foreign investment restrictions. Packer exploded, citing the Costigan royal commission. McHugh replied, abjectly: "I'm sorry, Mr Packer."
The most amusing moment was when Ian Sinclair, who seemed the least affected by Packer's presence, served himself a cup of tea. Packer boomed: "Hey! That bloke's getting a cup of tea; don't I get one?"
Several underlings and MPs rushed to serve him.
Having told the committee that of course he did what any sensible person did, paid no more tax than he had to - after all, "you" only wasted it - talkback radio the next day was inundated with calls proposing Packer be PM.
Now it is sometimes said that Packer improperly interfered with editorial decisions. I was on the press council for 15 years and never once did I hear of an allegation of improper proprietorial interference at the Packer (or indeed the Murdoch) groups. If there had been a scandal, surely it would have leaked. Wouldn't a disgruntled journalist have gone to a competitor or the ABC?
Later, when I was at the Australian Broadcasting Authority, the most important matter concerning Packer that came before us was when his chief executive Brian Powers left to return to the US, but also to act as chairman of Fairfax.
In the middle of a media controversy over the move, the ABA board decided to investigate whether this breached the cross-media rules. (Although commercial television was introduced by newspaper proprietors, Paul Keating decided to ban them owning both forms of media when national networking was allowed.)
To find a breach, the ABA had to make two findings of fact: first, that Powers was an associate of Packer; and, second, that Powers was in control of Fairfax. The evidence indicated a friendship between Packer and Powers, a diminishing business relationship, but nothing to show they were acting in concert in the conduct of the affairs of Fairfax. Packer proved to be a tough, straight-talking but truthful witness. Not surprisingly, he delivered the coup de grace to the case against him. Referring to Fred Hilmer, who he said had never run a newspaper, he boomed: "Do you really think that if I were running Fairfax I would have appointed that bloke?"
But, when we discussed the case, a board member raised a provision in our legislation that allowed members to rely on their own knowledge and experience. I had thought this was inserted to guide us in making policy decisions. He said: "These people meet one another, they play golf together. That is where they make their decisions. There are two camps in Sydney, Packer and Murdoch.
You are in one camp or the other, and Powers is in the Packer camp."
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
9 posts so far.