February 2006

The Monthly Essays

Some velvet mourning

By Bridget Griffen-Foley
Some velvet mourning

“Packer Dead – Hooray!” read a postcard I received from a professor at New Year. Not long after, an elderly acquaintance rang me to lament the loss of someone he and his wife had always regarded as “a great Australian”. “They don’t make them like that anymore,” the man intoned.

Plenty of the latter, but little of the former sentiment has been expressed, publicly at least, in the weeks following Kerry Packer’s death. Australia’s richest man died during the quietest news period of the year. The tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004, had roused journalists from their slumbers. Precisely a year later, Packer’s death did something similar. A media mogul who reputedly didn’t much like journalists, Packer might have been amused to see editors, news editors, reporters and cartoonists forced to break off their holidays and flap around updating years-old obituaries, choosing headlines, looking for angles, and liaising with the paparazzi.

His parting gesture, nonetheless, was to deliver his own media outlets a scoop. A statement announcing his death was read out on the Today show on Tuesday, December 27. The death of the man who transformed cricket also coincided with the Test at the MCG. When coverage resumed at 10 a.m., Nine’s commentary team, including Tony Greig, Ian Chappell and Richie Benaud, all of whom had been involved with Packer’s breakaway professional circuit World Series Cricket from the very outset, shared their reminiscences. The players observed a minute’s silence. Alan Jones, close to James Packer and Sam Chisholm, was at hand for interviews and feature articles. The Nine network’s 6 p.m. news was extended to an hour. Had Packer died in Soviet Russia, state radio would almost certainly have played martial music.

By the end of the week a commemorative edition of the Bulletin was on sale. It has since been reprinted a number of times, and will be complemented this month by tributes from Ros and Gretel Packer in the Australian Women’s Weekly and, it seems, the broadcast of an hour-long documentary on Nine. A state memorial service – a federal government initiative and a very rare honour for a businessman – is scheduled for February 17, and is bound to be attended by politicians of all stripes and media figures who sometimes cursed his name.

In the last half-century at least, the death of no Australian, other than Don Bradman, has attracted such saturation coverage. When Packer’s father Sir Frank died in 1974, the Women’s Weekly and the Bulletin managed only three pages and a cover. The socialist Workers’ News dared to head its obituary “Packer is dead – Hooray”, a much-delayed reply to the headline ordered by Sir Frank Packer on the death of Stalin in 1953.

In 2005, perhaps not even PBL could have predicted the level and the universality of interest in Kerry Packer, views of whom also dominated the pages of the ostensibly rival Murdoch and Fairfax presses; as one wit observed, it was as though Packer had finally taken over the Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1974, the obituaries focused on Sir Frank’s “robust Australianism”, labelling him a “rugged individualist”, “tough, shrewd, rumbustious”, “sometimes difficult, always masculine”. Thirty years later, they saw Kerry Packer as a chip off the old block: an anti-authoritarian, anti-intellectual, red-blooded, sports-loving Aussie bloke. But where Sir Frank seemed very much in step with his era, Kerry Packer, by sharing many of his father’s qualities, was ripe for nostalgic embrace.

Unlike his father, he operated in an era of MBAs, capital markets and shareholder value, yet he had acted like an old-fashioned, sleeves-up entrepreneur. Stories proliferated of his feudal management style, ruthlessness with subordinates, indifference to chains of command, intuitive sense of the market, fingertip feel for numbers, and curious sense of kinship with the battler. His bullying, it seems, was egalitarian – he was capable of inspiring terror in both high and low. He was a business ‘natural’ in a world that trains for everything. Melbourne’s tabloid Herald-Sun summed up a widespread feeling in a headline: “End of an Era”.

It seemed not to matter that Sir Frank Packer had taken up the hobbies of Sydney’s elite, such as polo and yachting, established a grand home in Bellevue Hill, holidayed at the exclusive Palm Beach, and emerged as a Liberal Party powerbroker. Nor that Kerry Packer had extended and fiercely guarded the family compound, acquired a rural estate in England, and staged lavish weddings for his daughter Gretel and his son James.

The Packers’ larrikin styles, their at times plebeian tastes and even their hulking physiques captured the public’s imagination in a way Australia’s other great media dynasty never has. The Murdochs are descended from Presbyterian ministers, scions of the Melbourne establishment, and are generally better educated. Rupert Murdoch relinquished his Australian citizenship to further his business interests in the US, and most of his children have American accents. Kerry Packer stayed one of us.

It was pragmatism as much as patriotism that saw Packer do most of his deals here. While Rupert Murdoch built his inheritance of a newspaper in Adelaide into an international entertainment conglomerate, Kerry Packer took his father’s largely Sydney-based media empire across the nation. Certainly he had interests in New Zealand, Asia and the US, but most of his business was conducted in Australia. In Australia the regulatory regime and the goalposts were clear. In Australia politicians and governments came running. This summer our political leaders interrupted their holidays, John Howard to describe his ‘friend’ as “a great Australian” and Kim Beazley to declare Packer “a tough Australian nationalist”; they would be hard-pressed to issue similar judgements of Murdoch, self-avowed “citizen of the world”.

Packer resonated with his times in another sense. If Murdoch is a man of business, Packer was a man of money – always defined by the description “Australia’s richest man”, often reported to be spending his money with casual ostentation, whether lavishing it on favoured causes by day, or squandering it in a casino by night. Australians seemed to enjoy watching him play with it, gamble with it, even conspicuously waste it. Modern advertising reminds us to ‘reward’ ourselves for hard work; Packer never failed to do so, indulging in hobbies on a scale unimaginable, buying polo teams and commissioning a Greg Norman-designed golf course.

Money, too, also seemed to spare Packer the need for tiresome niceties. For those who dream of a similar licence to intimidate, he was a role model. By electing to broadcast his virtuoso performance before the parliamentary print media inquiry in 1991, the ABC fixed Packer in the public mind as a man uninhibited by dull conventions. His public mauling of hapless politicians was cheered on by many, even though his labyrinthine business interests routinely benefited from political patronage at both the federal and state levels. In 1991 the Sydney promoter Max Markson asserted that Packer came across as a man with the ‘common touch’. Calls to Packer’s Park Street headquarters supported his controversial bid for Fairfax, while many calls to talkback radio averred he should simply become prime minister.

In 2005, Jones led the charge for canonisation. With Packer’s death, he insisted, Australia had lost “one of its most generous, unselfish and inspiring givers”. This refrain had many echoes. Packer had, often anonymously, given hefty donations to hospitals, charities, sporting bodies, arts festivals and people in distress. The New South Wales premier, Morris Iemma, stated that Packer’s legacy would continue to be felt through his generous support of the NSW public health system. No Australian has left behind such a distinctive gift as ‘the Packer whacker’ – the defibrillator with which he helped equip the New South Wales ambulance fleet after his own coronary misadventure. He might have gone to the other side and found “fucking nothing there” when he technically died for several minutes in 1990, but it is undeniable that he did bring something back for the people of New South Wales.

Packer’s generosity as a philanthropist, however, was in stark contrast to his parsimony as a taxpayer. The great Australian nationalist had been an internationalist where tax was concerned, forming a complex web of offshore tax havens. This was also something he inherited from his father. Some months after Frank Packer’s death, Labor senator Arthur Geitzelt had questioned how the head of a corporate octopus had managed to ensure that his estate was valued at only $1.3 million. When parliament resumes, it is unlikely that Labor (or the Coalition) will take on Kerry, and by extension James, by questioning his tax record.

“If you [are] lucky enough to have a few bob,” Packer once said, and “if you’re mean with it in your personal life, then you’re the lowest form of animal life.” Paying one’s fair share of taxes is not as glamorous, nor as interesting to the media, as philanthropy and random acts of kindness. With his wealth, it seems, Kerry bought himself not only freedom from the expedient of politeness but also from civic responsibility – or, at any rate, from those responsibilities he preferred to eschew. Roosevelt called tax “the price of living in a civilized society”. Those who excused Packer’s aversion to tax seem to share his view that it is not a price so much as a cost. And if the coverage of Packer’s death is anything to go by, that attitude is pervasive. “Packer’s practical compassion a model for us all”, editorialised the Sun-Herald. When the Daily Telegraph asked readers if they agreed that Packer was “a great Australian”, 71% of respondents said ‘yes’.

When someone famous dies, the media immediately begins talking about the person’s ‘legacy’. It’s a lazy term. From the Kerry Packer coverage it’s possible to deduce that he left his only son with a leviathan to run, his family with a string of properties, cricketers and footballers with healthy pay packets, ambulances with defibrillators, and the nation with more gambling palaces. Surely, though, Packer’s legacy also embraces what he and his influence helped to deny Australia. His fierce lobbying to protect Nine’s market share and interests were responsible in good part for Australia receiving pay television later than other comparable countries; for the lack of new broadcasting technologies like standard (rather than high) definition digital television, with all its exciting possibilities for opening up free-to-air services; and for a fourth television network being constantly put on the backburner.

Perhaps the sharpest assessment of Kerry Packer came from his biographer Paul Barry, who on December 27 remarked that Packer had turned into a bully like his father, and on December 28 wrote that he was a “man with no obvious sense of civic duty”.

The same thing could not be said about Packer’s father. One of the most striking consequences of the focus on Kerry’s lonely childhood has been the demonisation of his father. Sir Frank has been depicted as little more than a tyrant, whose brutalising influence lived on in Kerry’s temper and caprices; there has certainly been no sense of a man whose wartime record had demonstrated a sense of civic duty, nor of any other more complex man. It is doubtful whether Kerry himself would have been happy with the retrospective judgment of his father. He rarely spoke of Sir Frank with anything other than reverence: “strict but magnificent”, to use his famous formulation.

In all that was written about the Packer women, Kerry’s mother, Gretel, also emerged as a less than sympathetic figure. The implication was that she neglected Clyde and Kerry by sending them to boarding school, and by despatching Kerry to live in Bowral and Canberra. Their mother’s work for the Red Cross was dismissed as an ‘excuse’. And yet Gretel was a woman of her time and class: Clyde would later refer to the “whole team of nannies in our suburb”, including ‘Nurse Packer‘ and ‘Nurse Fairfax’, and Kerry was by no means the only child to be sent to family in the country when the fear of Japanese invasion was very real. Gretel Packer did have a long association with the Red Cross and served as co-president of the Australian Women’s Weekly Club for Servicewomen; during the war her adored only brother was killed and she herself was hospitalised with an undisclosed illness. In the interviews that I undertook with people who knew her, the adjectives used most often were ‘beautiful’ and ‘kind’. Certainly, she put her husband before her children, and Kerry had a childhood none of us would envy. Still, the photograph that keeps drawing me in is one taken around 1939. It shows the young family together: Gretel holding Clyde, apparently explaining the workings of the camera; and the infant Kerry, held uncertainly, but held nonetheless, by Frank.

Dynasties fascinate us; the narrative of power and fortune, ascending and declining. The story will now take a new turn. James Packer has emerged as a target in his own right, at least for one media outlet. In the first week of January, with Kerry Packer not yet buried, Seven’s Today Tonight reported on Seven and Ten’s successful bid for AFL television rights. It is always a shock to see something other than diet stories on Today Tonight, but this wasn’t quite straight journalism. Much of the report focused on the difficulties Nick Falloon and David Leckie had faced working for James Packer. Leckie just happens to now be CEO of the Seven network, while its executive chairman, Kerry Stokes, is suing Nine. Today Tonight did not see fit to mention that Seven’s ‘finance expert’, Michael Pascoe, who appeared in the report, was acrimoniously dumped from Nine. Today Tonight was at it again the following Monday. A report, heavily promoted over the weekend and again featuring Pascoe, focused on Packer and the other ‘rich kids’ involved in the One.Tel collapse. Two nights later, on January 11, Today Tonight reported on Packer’s and Betfair’s controversial wooing of the Tasmanian premier, Paul Lennon. Seven is obviously less reticent taking on the Packers now that the fearsome – and litigious – Kerry has departed the scene.

Other things will change too. Fairfax, which for a time was like a blushing bride at the altar, awaiting the arrival of new media ownership laws and then Kerry Packer, must now be wondering where it stands.

And the rest of us? Packer was the man who excelled in ‘event’ television, bringing us together as a nation to witness great sporting and political moments. Perhaps it is fitting that his passing became an event and a spectacle for all Australians. And although it is hard to see how it ‘brought us together’, the coverage of the past few weeks has left several archetypes for us to ponder: the lonely schoolboy, the ruthless dealmaker, the epic gambler, the master of intimidation and the inspiring giver. They may be disparate, but perhaps they capture some of what it is to be a great Australian today.

Almost everyone, with the exception of James Packer, has now had their say in public. One wonders whether James might eventually paraphrase Kerry Packer’s remark about Sir Frank to sum up his father. On December 27 photographers were at hand at PBL headquarters, ready to capture the image of James striding into work, in a move designed to assure the markets it was business as usual. Nothing, however, will be as usual again in the house of Packer.

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