It is 15 years since Kerry Packer withdrew his bid for Fairfax newspapers. Few if any media issues in Australian history have ever provoked such a widespread and strong public response as Packer's bid to buy 14.99 per cent of Fairfax as part of the Tourang syndicate he had organised with the (now disgraced) Canadian press proprietor Conrad Black and the American private equity group, Hellman and Friedman.
Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser had barely spoken to each other in the 16 years following the vice-regal dismissal of Whitlam's Government in November 1975, but in 1991, for the first time ever, they shared a political platform to oppose this threat of yet further media concentration.
Both signed a protest letter, organised by former National Party minister Peter Nixon, and also signed by his former leader Doug Anthony, as well as a range of former senior politicians. Large rallies were held in Melbourne and Sydney.
All concentrated on the negative consequences for Australian democracy, which with Murdoch's domination already had the most highly concentrated press ownership in the democratic world. But there is no doubt personal antipathy to Packer himself also played a major part.
As his biographer Paul Barry reported, Packer “appeared to hate journalists, had a record of punching cameramen, and was ever ready to sue reporters who wrote about him”. At times, he had been an interventionist proprietor, who enjoyed throwing his corporate weight around, and who sometimes had compromised journalistic professionalism.
Realising that he was losing the public relations war, Packer appeared on his channel's A Current Affair, where he said the idea of owning part of Fairfax amused him.
Members of parliament were less amused. The following afternoon a bipartisan petition gathered 128 signatures of the 224 federal MPs within a matter of hours.
Public opinion itself was insufficient to stop the bid, but it was becoming increasingly unpalatable for the government to do nothing. The Hawke Government called on a House of Representatives inquiry (in which, in contrast to a Senate inquiry, it could still control the numbers).
Packer appeared before the committee, an appearance televised live and which has entered Australian folklore. Viewed retrospectively, many of his assertions were at the least questionable, playing to populist prejudices, but more than the content, it was the commanding tone that impressed. He overwhelmed the MPs' questioning by both fair means and foul, simply ruling some areas out of bounds, for example, and sometimes treating elected representatives with contempt.
Paul Barry concluded that “Packer was not just frightening, he was frighteningly smart. As a public performer he was quite breathtaking.” Indeed, it was such a riveting performance that it was mentioned many times in the paeans of praise following Packer's death, and surrounding his memorial service. None of these, however, commented how just three weeks after this apparently wonderful performance, Packer had to abandon his goal for Fairfax.
When the chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, Peter Westerway, appeared before the same committee a few weeks later, he announced an inquiry into the takeover. The inquiry was into whether as a member of the Tourang syndicate Packer would be in a position to exercise some control and so be in breach of the cross-media laws.
Two days after Westerway's statement, Packer announced his withdrawal from the bid.