April 2006

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Malcolm Turnbull & Conrad Black

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

The meeting had been in progress for five hours when Conrad Black strode into Kerry Packer’s sumptuous suite at the Savoy.

It was June 1991 and Packer was in England to play polo. Between chukkas, he was assembling a consortium to bid for the John Fairfax company, which was in receivership. Black, the flamboyant Canadian media tycoon, wanted a piece of the action. So, too, did Malcolm Turnbull, lawyer turned investment banker.

Packer needed partners to get around Australia’s media ownership laws; Black had global ambitions and a bulging war chest; and Turnbull had dealt himself a hand at the big boys’ table as the champion of Fairfax’s principal creditors, US bondholders, whose litigation could tie up any takeover indefinitely. A snug syndicate would be in everybody’s interest.

Black found Turnbull, ten years his junior, to be affable, well scrubbed and persuasively articulate, despite having “considerable difficulty maintaining his self-control against an onslaught of unimaginable compulsive inner tensions and ineluctable ambitions”. He quickly assessed Turnbull’s nuisance value, rating it high.

Numbers were crunched, jobs allocated and Tourang was up and running. Packer went back to his ponies and Black returned to Canada for the summer.

In the months that followed, the fight for Fairfax became Australia’s premier three-ring circus. Alternative bidders came and went; journalists railed; Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam joined hands to lead the fight against greater media concentration.

But behind the scenes, the Tourang coalition was fraying. Black’s lieutenants thought Turnbull wore too many hats. Turnbull, a protégé of Packer, was keen to signal his independence. The knives were out.

“I explained to Black that if you want to be an assassin, you have to be prepared to have a little blood on your hands,” Turnbull recalled. But when the blow came, he blamed Packer: “I was turfed because Kerry Packer knew I was my own man.”

Minus Malcolm, then Kerry, Conrad won the bid. At the first AGM, he accused Turnbull of gouging $6.3 million out of the deal “for minimal services”. Four years later, he sold up and shot through.

He is now Baron Black of Crossharbour, his Canadian citizenship ditched for a seat in the House of Lords, and is facing US warrants for racketeering, money laundering and fraud. The FBI raided his New York apartment. Sotheby’s is suing him.

Turnbull’s fortunes are flourishing, despite the setback of the republic referendum. Richly rich, a Liberal MP, he’s an odds-on bet as a future prime minister. Even the old sores have healed. At Kerry Packer’s funeral, he led the crowd singalong of ‘C’mon Aussie, C’mon’.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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