The anticipated-yet-still-surprising Boxing Day death of Kerry Packer presented the Australian media with a huge story in the summer holiday period for the second consecutive year. While nowhere near as tragically far-reaching as the tsunami, the passing of Packer again interrupted the “silly season” with some serious business.
It was as if the timing of his death was Packer’s last ploy. He’d just overseen the largest sports television bid in the country’s history, and then engineered its announcement on the Friday before Christmas to maximise inconvenience to his bidding rivals.
The last big deal done, his refusal of further medical intervention led to a peaceful death, and a final gesture of unco-operativeness towards those despised journalists interested in his private life. The obituaries might have been primed well in advance, but the last dramatic chapter was massaged by trusted associates like Alan Jones. Holidaying hacks from rival media empires had to be scrambled in search of an elusive on-the-beach commentariat.
So how were Packer’s life and times covered by the news media? There was the expected hagiography from his Nine network, and commercial rivals and the state broadcasters were, on the whole, generous. This is, after all, the season of goodwill to all men of Christian heritage, and to speak ill of the recently deceased is unseemly unless the subject is a genocidal maniac.
Friends, employees, commercial competitors and politicians (practising and retired) said warm things about him, sometimes sprinkled with coded caveats.
A fairly consensual (if not clichéd) picture of Packer emerged. A giant, physically and figuratively, who had made notable contributions to Australian media and world sport. A volcanic, bullying, competitive personality, yet capable of great personal kindness and humility. A ruthless businessman who commanded and gave loyalty to some, but meting out the shortest of shrift to others.
A miserly payer of taxes using every needle eye in the Tax Act against the public purse, but highly beneficent towards personally chosen causes, organisations and individuals. A privileged inheritor of a media empire unafraid of using his power on elected representatives of the people, but an ordinary bloke uncannily in touch with the common folk. And so on, and on.
Perhaps all obituaries should be like this, neither sanctifying nor demonising. Kerry Packer was mainly represented as complex and contradictory, a flawed individual whose overall contribution to the world has been significant and, on balance, positive. He even had his succession planning sorted, with a number of close advisers singing the praises of scion and successor, James. All that remained to be accomplished was a private funeral, the legacy of Packer bequests, and a weather eye kept on the fortunes of Public and Broadcasting Limited and the romantic life of James.
This collective “larger than life” portrait might be vivid, but it is even more revealing about contemporary Australian media culture than about the man himself. In reading the persona of Packer, a deeply troubling world of wealth, intimidation and excess comes into view.
This is a world where media policy is made in deference to vested interests; a contemptuous attitude towards royal commissions and parliamentary inquiries is praised as popular resistance; abusive behaviour towards employees and competitors is regarded as par for the course; offshore tax-minimisation is acceptable as long as some profits are spent on good causes as well as gambling binges; legal muscle can be used to deter legitimate inquiry and criticism. And so on, and on.
To point out such glaring problems is to incur accusations of naivety and faint-heartedness. This is the way of the world. If you don’t like it, get out of the kitchen and off the pot. In fact, in this macho universe it takes far greater courage to say that something is very wrong. It is to observe that 21st century Australia has not advanced far beyond the era of the first robber press barons, when might was right, and possession nine-tenths of the law.
Kerry Packer’s tale is redolent of those of earlier and current generations of media moguls here and elsewhere, including Northcliffe, Beaverbrook, Hearst, Maxwell, Murdoch (Keith and Rupert), Black, Berlusconi - and Packer (Frank). They tell of big men making big deals, competitive masculine display and the problems of inheritance.
They describe a context in which media proprietors fight to the death motivated by little more than the love of victory against other men, and hang tomorrow’s consequences. It is a Victorian-era scenario (not least here in the marginalisation of Packer’s daughter Gretel, a woman and not a “player”) updated with casino capitalism, (micro)chips and electronic superhighways.
Kerry Packer may have been in many ways monstrous, but he was truly a creation of something much more terrifying - the continuing, privileged use and abuse of media power.