The first comment Kerry Packer made in my presence was a glowing reference to the bosom of a well-known female figure.
About 20 years later I attended a gala art opening and fell into conversation with James Fairfax about painting and, of course, newspapers.
These are two stereotypical, but also real, examples of the style, interests and character of the two men who at the time chaired Consolidated Press Holdings – the former owner of the Channel Nine network – and Fairfax, which publishes, among other titles, The Australian Financial Review and AFR Weekend.
On Thursday the legacy companies of the Fairfax family’s almost 150 years as newspaper proprietors and the Packer family’s 56 years at the helm of Nine announced a merger.
The $4.2 billion deal is, in effect, a takeover of Fairfax by Nine. This is symbolised by the fact the merged group will be known as Nine, thereby extinguishing one of the oldest names in newspaper publishing in the English-speaking world.
To use former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating’s colourful language, the question on many people’s lips now is will Nine’s “pus” inevitably infect the approach to reporting and analysis of the news by former Fairfax journalists in the merged group? Of course, some journalists, including me, have worked for both companies, prompting graphic images of reinfection.
Both companies are widely held. They have been through various corporate makeovers over the years (28 for Fairfax and eight for Nine) since the respective families ceded control. However, the character of both companies is still influenced by those two, vastly different, families.
There was something buccaneering about the Packers. Originally from Tasmania, they started out with Robert Clyde Packer and his interest in the old Smith’s Weekly and other papers. But the real pioneer of the Packer media dynasty was his son, Frank Packer, who became a feared power in the land through his ownership of magazines, newspapers and television.
Frank Packer was a domineering figure in his family and his company. Irascible and extremely conservative, his writ was editorial law; it was Packer’s way or the highway.
He also had a canny media mind and was capable of great loyalty. His son, Kerry, also had a formidable temper, and he could, at times, interfere in the editorial process, though far more rarely than his father.
By contrast, the Fairfaxes were a respectable, even pious Scottish Protestant family with a deep understanding of newspapers and printing, a wider sense of community obligation, and of the responsibility that went with the power of The Sydney Morning Herald. They were also conservative, and drove the editorial line of their papers, particularly the Herald, while leaving the news pages alone.
These differences in family culture and instinct are accentuated by, and reflected in, the nature of the legacy groups’ major media assets.
For Fairfax it was historically quality newspapers including the Herald, The Age, the Financial Review and The Canberra Times, although John Fairfax and Sons, as it was known, also branched out into magazine publishing, television and radio. In the latter years Kerry Packer was identified with Nine, particularly after revolutionising the television coverage of cricket, but the company’s historic media momentum relied on the stunning, Depression-era, success of The Australian Women’s Weekly, now owned by the German Bauer group.
In addition, Kerry Packer’s father, Frank Packer, was publisher of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers for 36 years (they were later sold to Rupert Murdoch), and his son expanded his Australian Consolidated Press magazine empire. Over the past 40 years or so much of the corporate culture came from Nine, or bounced off Kerry Packer to Nine, and then back to the company’s headquarters in Park Street, Sydney.
To be profitable, a commercial television network must achieve high ratings, particularly at peak hours, and maintain close relations with big-bucks paying advertisers and advertising agencies. The key role of advertising explains why two of the most successful general managers at the Nine Network, Sam Chisholm and David Leckie, moved into their top job from positions as advertising sales directors.
Driven hard by Kerry Packer, Chisholm and Leckie understood in their DNA that in TV-land, ratings drove sales, and sales drove profits. This was particularly so with Channel Nine News. As a half-hour program at 6.30pm it needed to attract top ratings. Such a premium on advertising inevitably, although at times subliminally, affects editorial choices, or how to “sell” the news.
However, it doesn’t end there. It was during Packer’s reign that Channel Nine also attracted a fine group of journalists – Laurie Oakes, Jana Wendt, Ray Martin, George Negus, Helen Dalley, Peter Harvey, and many others. Oakes, who had been an outstanding political correspondent for The Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne, broke more important stories out of Canberra than any other TV journalist, including those from the ABC.
Packer often argued the toss on stories with Gerald Stone, the pioneering executive producer of Nine’s 60 Minutes, but he also conceded ground. For a man who could be fearsome and ruthless, Kerry Packer also enjoyed generally good relations with his company’s leading print and TV journalists including Trevor Kennedy, Trevor Sykes, Martin, Negus and Wendt.
Nine’s current affairs programs including 60 Minutes, Sunday and Business Sunday also did some serious journalistic digging, although it was a given that the final package would ooze TV bling, and Nine never displayed the editorial edge of, say, the ABC’s Four Corners.
Laws of profit and loss
It’s hard to conceive of an institution with Nine’s corporate culture, and its emphasis on “traffic” and “results”, waging a 30-year campaign to open up the Australian economy, as the Financial Review did. The newspaper was also operating in the same city – Sydney – and in a company that, ultimately, was governed by the same profit and loss laws of any commercial undertaking.
The Fairfax revenue stream was historically derived from classified advertising. The atomised nature of thousands and thousands of 2-10 line ads for jobs, houses and so on meant advertisers were more anonymous, even amorphous, compared with those in commercial television.
For many decades the Fairfax publications were comprehensive, reliable, well-written and expertly produced, but also somewhat staid, even hide-bound. The editorial vibe was different at the intellectually athletic Financial Review under Vic Carroll’s editorship from the mid-1960s. The newspaper campaigned to open up Australia’s prematurely sclerotic economy, at the same time possibly subconsciously campaigning for a more open Fairfax publishing group.
The process came to a climax in 1980 with the appointment of former Financial Review deputy editor Max Suich as chief editorial executive of Fairfax, and Carroll’s emergence as the editor-in-chief of the Herald. From a staid approach to its editors, Fairfax management became more open.
Asked if he saw any possible tensions in the merged group over conflicting approaches to editorial issues, Carroll commented: “I noticed the leader [editorial] in the Herald today [Friday] picked up on a possible fracture point in what will Channel Nine think of Fairfax’s editorial connections with the ABC. They’ll say ‘that’s the opposition you’re working with. You should be working with Channel Nine’.
“It reminds me of back in the ’60s when the Financial Review was in strong competition with The Australian [owned by Rupert Murdoch]. They were using any opportunity they could to get their reporters onto the ABC. I said to [then Fairfax general manager Rupert] Henderson one day, ‘why shouldn’t the Financial Review use the ABC to broadcast the talents of our journalists like [chief political correspondent] Max Walsh?’ Henderson said, ‘Do your deals with [the Fairfax affiliated] Channel Seven’.”
But Channel Seven wasn’t interested. “What chance did I have? We didn’t get anywhere with it.”
Whether the SMH-ABC tie-up “gets anywhere” after the Fairfax merger with Nine will be interesting to observe.