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  HOME | Arts & Entertainment

Australia loses media mogul Kerry Packer
Uncompromising media proprietor who became Australia's richest man and dragged cricket into the television age

KERRY PACKER grew up in the shadow of a famous father and achieved a stature far beyond that of a parent who always treated him with chilling lack of consideration.

Sir Frank Packer was a rumbustious Sydney media mogul, but his younger son was to outstrip him in wealth, fame and influence. Kerry Packer was accepted as Australia's wealthiest individual, his fortune estimated at Adollars 7 billion (nearly pounds 3 billion).

He was a television and magazine proprietor of immense significance, a skilled player in political lobbying, an enthusiastic gambler, and best known in Britain for the sporting revolution he set off in 1977 with his rebel World Series Cricket.

Politicians operated in constant uncertainty about his next move - eager for his support but ready to block efforts to extend his media empire to what they saw as dangerous proportions.

Packer had a name as a bully to his employees, not least his executives, and extended his profanity-spattered truculence to politicians and businessmen. But he could also exude rough-hewn charm, and long-serving staff, valued friends and good causes could benefit from his extraordinary (and sometimes anonymous) generosity.

Packer rarely interfered with the content of his magazines, concerned only with their profits, but stepped in ruthlessly if his TV stations showed programmes of which he disapproved. He cultivated politicians who could be of use, not least from the state and federal Labour right wing, but had little time for journalists, his bitterness exacerbated by the way his business activities were covered by opposition newspapers.

An obsessive gambler, Packer in June 1995 was reported to have won dollars 24 million playing blackjack in Las Vegas - ensuring admiring mentions in Fleet Street gossip columns, which found his buccaneering approach of endless interest. He was supposed to have lost Adollars 7 million in 1987 at a Sydney race meeting, but usually he was a winner, his most indulgent gambling being overseas, because Australian casinos could not accommodate his huge wagers.

The Packer media dynasty dated from the turn of the 19th century when Kerry's grandfather, the Tasmanian-born Robert Clyde Packer, arrived in Sydney at 21. By 1931 he was editor of Sydney's Daily Telegraph, but endless feuds with political and business opponents took their toll, and he died of heart failure in 1934, aged 54. One account records: "Like his son and grandson after him, R. C. was famous for yelling at people, for firing them, and for being obsessively secretive."

Douglas Frank Hewson Packer, born in 1906, and known as Frank, left school at 16, tackled most jobs in the newspaper business, and in 1933 with an associate launched what was to become the most famous magazine in Australia, The Australian Women's Weekly (still part of the Packer empire, although now published monthly). In 1936 this was linked with the ailing Telegraph under a new publisher, Consolidated Press. The hard-hitting Telegraph moved steadily to the Right, its working-class readers guaranteed entertainment and clear-cut policies.

Packer was a pioneer of television when it reached Australia in 1956, setting up Channel Nine in Sydney. He used his outlets ruthlessly against the Australian Labor Party at federal level, helping to keep the Liberal-Country Party coalition in office in Canberra from 1949 to 1972, and was knighted by a grateful Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, in 1959 for "services to journalism".

By the Seventies the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, hit by TV, were losing money, and the younger son, Kerry Packer, was known to favour their sale. Sir Frank resisted strongly, but in 1972 succumbed to a generous offer from Rupert Murdoch's News Limited. Three months later the older son, Clyde Packer, resigned as boss of the Channel Nine network after a row with his father - and when Sir Frank died in 1974, Kerry at 37 became chairman of the empire of two TV and five radio stations, nine provincial papers and Australia's biggest magazine publisher, plus property and other interests.

As a biographer put it, "Frank Packer devoted up to 20 hours a day to business, and his two young sons paid the price with an unhappy childhood". Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer was born in 1937. In 1945 the eight-year-old Kerry contracted infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis). He spent nine months in an iron lung, was switched between schools, and suffered from dyslexia, all making for a traumatic boyhood.

Packer went to Australia's most prestigious private school, Geelong Grammar, just three years after another son of a famous media father, Rupert Murdoch, had left - their paths were to cross often as they became dominant figures in the Australian media. Geelong gave Packer a cold welcome for his lack of polish and his academic shortcomings. His size and strength protected him to some extent - he was school heavyweight boxing champion in 1956. The teenager found little warmth on holiday with his family; Packer told the story of being sent back from his Sydney home to collect a missing tennis racket, responding: "Arrived Melbourne safely. No love - Kerry."

Leaving Geelong at 19 (he took six years to complete a four-year course), Packer was drafted into the Telegraphs, doing the most menial of jobs, while his smarter brother learnt the ropes as a reporter. He found alternative satisfaction in gambling, womanising and speeding around Sydney in a sports car; he also was a heavy smoker and drinker, although he stopped drinking completely in later life.

At this stage (Robert) Clyde Packer, born in 1934, was the logical heir: Frank Packer had no high opinion of his hulking younger son, cruelly labelling him "Boofhead". Packer grew to 6ft 3in (1.90m) and 20 stone (127kg); his heavy features later inspired Fleet Street to tag him "the man in the stocking mask". His toughness did him little good on an infamous night in 1960, when a dispute over the ownership of a Sydney printery led to the building being occupied by the Packer brothers with other heavies. The former owner preferred Rupert Murdoch's bid, and a task force recruited on his behalf evicted the Packer group. The Murdoch-owned Sydney Daily Mirror published a long-remembered story, "Knight's Sons in City Brawl", with a photograph of Clyde Packer hurling one of the printery staff into the street. But Clyde Packer became increasingly unhappy at his father's dominance, and after a split he left for California, allowing the younger son to step up. In the early 1970s Kerry took over day-to-day control of the empire from his ailing father, who died in 1974, allowing Kerry to become chairman at 37.

For cricket traditionalists, Kerry Packer remains the ogre who smashed up a cosy, amateur-run game in the interests of television ratings: in fact, he ensured that players for the first time were properly paid, as he forced cricket to face commercial realities - if with an element of "dumbing-down".

He was unknown in the UK until May 9, 1977, when news broke that he was setting up an independent competition - World Series Cricket - and that most leading players had taken his dollar. Packer was ahead of his time in appreciating what sport could do for TV ratings, especially in colour, and with night matches. Cricket was the preserve of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation); Packer was the first commercial TV boss to show any interest in the game, but Australian Cricket Board officials rejected a bid seven times the fee paid by the ABC.

In London six weeks later the International Cricket Conference turned down Packer's proposal for a six-week WSC season, offering to allow the authorities to run the competition but insisting on exclusive TV rights in Australia to all big cricket.

The ICC and the English Test and County Cricket Board announced bans on Packer players. WSC took both to court on grounds of restraint of trade. The case made the headlines, cricketers complained of poor pay compared with the WSC offers, and Packer - who was a restrained and impressive witness - won the legal argument. He went on to win the cricket argument on November 28, 1978, when 50,000 packed the Sydney Cricket Ground to confirm that the brash style and instant thrills of one-day cricket, especially under lights, could draw thousands who found conventional cricket dull.

In April 1979 the ACB awarded the Nine Network subsidiary PBL Sports exclusive cricket promotional rights for ten years, to include a new series of one-day internationals, providing the programming which Nine could showcase to good effect. It was estimated that by the 1990s Channel Nine cricket was reaching from half to three quarters of the potential domestic audience.

A major figure in the dominance of Nine was Sam Chisholm, later to make his impact in Britain as chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting. Channel Nine had been the pioneering Australian station on air, in September 1956, when the first figure seen onscreen was (Sir) Bruce Gyngell, later to make his own fame in Britain with TV-am.

Packer was to involve himself again with control of sport linked to TV rights. Ironically, in 1995 he backed officialdom, siding with Australian Rugby League opposition to a Super League sponsored by News Limited, part of the News Corporation group and a sister company of News International. The code ran two costly competitions for a season, before peace was declared, with the Nine Network in November 1995 getting rights to the new reunited competition.

Packer also sought rights to a new professional rugby union competition in 1995 but lost to the Murdoch organisation's Super Twelve, involving Australian, South African and New Zealand teams.

Sport was always a driver for Channel Nine, and intellectual pursuits were not for Packer, his populist taste expressed by the programming of his TV network, with entertainment its keynote. He believed passionately that television was the medium of the age; newspapers were now "the second-class media", he declared.

Packer TV, magazines and suburban papers were substantial if erratic players in state and federal politics, usually anti-Labor. However, as Labor moved to the right, Packer found himself increasingly at ease with its leaders, notably one Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, whose larrikin attitudes appealed to the similarly-minded Packer (in contrast to the smoother style of the establishment Liberals - conservatives - whom Packer had always disliked). Radicals objected to the concept of Hawke's "media mates", claiming that Packer was one of several tycoons given special treatment by the Hawke Administration.

In 1983 Packer swooped to strengthen his hold on Consolidated Press, which had been only 25 per cent owned by his family. He gained full control of the company, and was said to have secured assets of pounds 100 million by paying out less than half that sum; it was believed that he had privatised the group partly to put his companies out of reach of inquiring busybodies. A year later, evidence was leaked from the Costigan Federal Royal Commission into organised crime and corruption, naming a central figure as "Goanna", said to be involved in a vast range of illegal activities.

Packer was immediately identified by gossip; he made a statement accepting this but rebutting charges, specifically those of drug trafficking. He later gave evidence to the commission, and the National Crime Authority continued a secret investigation into various allegations until, in March 1987, the Attorney-General, Lionel Bowen, made a statement in Parliament effectively clearing Packer. But suspicion lingered in an Australia always willing to believe the worst of its "tall poppies", not least because some Packer business associates had dubious records.

Packer never lost an ability to startle the markets and make Australia take notice - as in 1987 when he sold his Nine television network to Alan Bond, the flamboyant Perth entrepreneur and hero of Australia's 1983 America's Cup yachting victory. The price was pounds 491 million. Three years later Packer bought back Nine for pounds 88 million - a boost that helped to turn his wealth from substantial to vast.

In 1986 Packer discussed merging his empire with Australia's biggest newspaper group, the Herald & Weekly Times, but this was rejected by a narrow margin by the HWT board - and a few months later Rupert Murdoch took over the Herald group. In 1989 Packer, with James Goldsmith and the banker Jacob Rothschild, made a move for British American Tobacco - the opening bid of dollars 28 billion was said to be the second biggest takeover that world business had seen. But BAT shareholders were unhappy at the role junk bonds were to play, and the bid died.

A string of properties all over Australia was steadily added to the Packer possessions - cash always apparently available. It was no coincidence that he was known as a master in trimming his tax bill, declaring his philosophy: "Anybody who does not minimise his tax wants his head read."

One of Packer's ambitions was to acquire the Fairfax newspaper empire, whose Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age, broadsheets crammed with classified advertising, were memorably described by another interested party, Rupert Murdoch, as "rivers of gold".

Fairfax was thrown into chaos in 1987 when Warwick Fairfax Jr launched an abortive bid for the family business; this collapsed in 1991, and Packer joined Conrad Black, then proprietor of The Daily Telegraph in London, to bid with a new grouping, Tourang. This brought ferocious opposition from Fairfax journalists, and the Hawke Government was also opposed, having lost early enthusiasm for Packer. New cross-media restrictions were announced, and although Packer mounted a vigorous defence, ridiculing claims that he would run Fairfax to the detriment of a free press, he had reinforced politicians' fears. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal announced an inquiry into the bid, and Packer withdrew abruptly.

In September 1997 Packer announced that he was selling his Fairfax stake, having failed to persuade the coalition Government to scrap cross-media laws to allow him to control both Sydney's main TV station and newspapers. He told TV (Channel Nine, of course): "For 50 years of my life, in some form or other, Fairfax has been in competition to me and my family." It amused him when in 1998 he was flown to New York (by his own Super 62 series DC8, fitted out as a flying hospital) for heart surgery, he booked in to the US clinic as "John Fairfax, of no fixed abode".

Packer collapsed with a heart attack while playing polo in October 1990; he was technically dead for eight minutes, but was revived by ambulance officers, offering the laconic comment: "I've seen what's on the other side, and believe me, there's nothing there." A quintuple heart bypass followed. Already in 1986 he had been rushed to hospital in London for the removal of a diseased gall bladder and a cancerous kidney.

The heart operation persuaded him to enjoy what years he had left, specifically through polo, whose delights he had just discovered - strong ponies had to be found to carry his substantial weight. Splendidly appointed polo establishments which he set up in England, Australia and Argentina were estimated to have cost at least pounds 50 million. The Ellerston property north of Sydney housed 160 ponies - and 100 staff.

Packer's English visits were focused on his polo property at Stedham, West Sussex (now owned by Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea FC). When in London he usually stayed at the Savoy - he was reported to have taken several suites for up to three months. He was a substantial investor in TV-am, showing his usual flair by selling out at the top of the market.

At various times Packer was rumored to be interested in Fleet Street, notably Mirror Group Newspapers, but he remained essentially an Australian operator who may have enjoyed recreation and negotiations in both England and the US, but was happiest wheeler-dealing on his native midden, where he knew the rules, held the power - and where his fearsome reputation was a major asset.

He was widely reported to have accepted advice from the late Sir James Goldsmith and liquidated his assets just before the 1987 stock market crash.

Packer always made news; in 1992 he moved after Westpac, one of Australia's "big four" banks, only to be rejected by a wary board. In May 1993 gold bullion worth Adollars 5.4 million was stolen from his Sydney executive suite. There was much conjecture as to why anyone would hold such a supply in a private office along with agreement that it was typical of the larger-than-life Packer style. Inevitably he came out on top; the gold was never found, but he recovered most of its value through insurance.

As he neared his sixties Packer told friends that business and the expansion of his empire were no longer the consuming passions they had been, and in March 1996 he stepped down as chairman of Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd (as the company had become), naming his 28-year-old son James managing director and heir-apparent. In May 1998 the younger Packer became executive chairman, but his ability to carry on the empire was questioned when he persuaded News Corporation to join PBL in the ambitious OneTel telecoms venture in 1995. This collapsed in 2001 with debts of almost Adollars 1 billion, and a legal inquiry into the business continues. A more successful partnership between PBL and News Limited is Foxtel, Australia's biggest pay-TV network, in which each owns a 25 per cent share.

Ill-health dogged Packer, and in November 2000 he had a transplant operation to replace his remaining kidney - the organ was donated by his helicopter pilot and friend Nicholas Ross. These experiences helped to spark Packer's extraordinary generosity towards the cause of public health, such as his dollars 10 million donation to a Sydney hospital's cardio-research institute.

But even an ailing Kerry Packer could never sit back: he continued to take a vigorous interest in a range of business enterprises, and in partnership with Damian Aspinall had most recently been involved in plans to take advantages of Britain's new relaxed gaming laws, by establishing supercasinos here. He already owned Melbourne's Crown Casino, and other interests included petrochemicals, heavy engineering, ski resorts, rural properties, diamond exploration, coal mines, and supermarket coupons.

Packer was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1983. He is survived by his wife, Roslyn Redman Weedon, whom he married in 1963, his son James and daughter Gretel.

Kerry Packer, AC, media proprietor, was born on December 17, 1937. He died on December 26, 2005, aged 68.

The Times of London

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