1906 - 1974 | NSW | Publisher
Sir Frank Packer was a poor student and aggressive child who rose to become Australia’s most successful and powerful media mogul until Rupert Murdoch built his international empire. Packer launched Australia’s most successful magazine, Australian Women’s Weekly, in 1933. In 1966, his company took over the Daily Telegraph and used it to trumpet pro-Liberal views from the post-war years until 1972 when he sold it to Murdoch. Packer obtained one of Australia’s first television licences in 1956 and set it on a path to becoming Australia’s most successful commercial network. He underwrote two challenges to the America’s Cup with boats named after his wife Gretel.
It was probably inevitable that Frank Packer’s life’s work revolved around what we now call the media – newspapers, magazines and later television. His father, Robert Clyde Packer, set the pattern and expected the son who hero-worshipped him to follow in his footsteps.
There were no silver spoons, for either generation. The elder Packer, born into a middle class Hobart family, had made a mark as a reporter there and in country New South Wales and Queensland before throwing himself into the turbulent journalistic world of early 20th century Sydney, where his sharp news sense, energy and determination saw him prosper.
Frank, born in 1906, spent his early years growing up in the bush around the family home at Waitara in Sydney’s north. Physical activity came naturally, but schooling didn’t. When he left Shore, the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, without completing his Intermediate Certificate, his next move was obvious – a cadetship on Smith’s Weekly and the Daily Guardian, papers his father co-owned and managed. A senior colleague remembered the teenager as “a husky boy… strong as a bear, aggressive, full of fight.”
It quickly became apparent that young Frank hadn’t inherited his father’s journalistic skills, but it was also clear, as he worked his way around the papers, that he was good with figures, could understand share deals, identify potential adversaries and size up a likely merger or takeover. A spell as a jackaroo had its value too – introducing him to polo and the rough-and-ready camaraderie of the bush.
While his father battled through Sydney’s tumultuous newspaper wars, young Frank displayed his prowess and determination in the boxing ring. His first shot at the News South Wales amateur heavyweight title ended ignominiously in the first round, but he trained hard and won at the second attempt. Having proved that point, he retired from the ring, though not from the sport’s administration, at the age of 22.
Frank had already been appointed to managerial positions as his father, whose health was showing the strain of long hours, incessant wheeling and dealing and the effects of a serious sailing injury, tried to set his legacy in concrete. Political and business intrigues during the Great Depression and a run-in with the Lang New South Wales government proved tough, but valuable, learning experiences while a business alliance with Labor powerbroker and former Federal minister E.G. (Ted) Theodore made Frank the equivalent of a modern-day millionaire by the time he was 26.
A year later, at the suggestion of senior editor George Warnecke, he established the Australian Women’s Weekly, a huge success from the very start and a key building block – together with the soon-to-be acquired Daily Telegraph - for what became Consolidated Press.
Dramatic changes followed in Frank Packer’s personal life. Within months of the death of his father early in 1934, Frank’s courtship of the beautiful and vivacious Gretel Bullmore, a leading light of Sydney society, resulted in marriage and the subsequent birth of their sons, Clyde and Kerry.
By the end of the 1930s, Frank Packer was a major player in the world of Australian newspapers and magazines, and a force for governments – as well as his media adversaries – to reckon with. Having joined the citizen militia in 1939, he was transferred to the AIF two years later, then seconded as Director of Personnel to the Allied Works Council – a civil construction authority run by his old friend Ted Theodore. Back in the army in 1944, he saw service briefly in New Guinea.
Post-war, Packer expanded his own battlefields, supporting the Liberal and Country parties, brawling with Labor and the trades unions, insisting on an Australian role in the settlement with Japan, demanding better access to newsprint supplies and maintaining hostilities with rival proprietors through local turf wars and battles for representation on, and control of, bodies such as the Australian Newspapers Conference, AAP and Reuters.
Large and imposing in stature, gravel-voiced but shy about public speaking, Packer possessed a gruff charm that earned him the loyalty of many close colleagues and the enmity of some he fell out with. His extra-marital affairs were said to be an open secret in Sydney society. He worked long days and – with Gretel or alone – had an extremely busy social and sporting life. His sons remembered him as remote, strict, often intimidating. Punishment for childhood misdemeanours was swift and uncompromising. Sent back to Geelong Grammar School during term holidays to fetch the tennis racquet he’d left behind, Kerry cabled his father: “Arrived Melbourne safely. No love. Kerry.”
1950 saw Packer enthusiastically throw his publications’ weight behind the new Menzies government’s bid to outlaw the Communist Party, and the start of a sometimes tricky relationship with Menzies himself. Like Menzies, he was an ardent royalist, but also saw the growing importance to Australia of the United States. He became heavily involved with the Australian American Association, pushing its activities in the pages of the Telegraph.
When, after long debate and a Royal Commission in 1954, television entered the Australian media landscape, Frank Packer seized the opportunity to grab a stake, applying for and winning a licence for his company Television Corporation. What ultimately became the Nine Network was born.
His long-standing desire for a knighthood (he’d almost rejected a CBE in 1951) was fulfilled in 1959, though it was seen by political and business opponents as simply a reward for his support of the Liberal Party and the Menzies government.
Just a year later, the new Sir Frank Packer was a widower – Gretel died at the early age of 53 from the effects of a major circulatory disorder. Her ashes were scattered in Sydney Harbour, but her husband kept her memory alive in the name of the 12-metre yachts he had built to make Australia’s first challenge for the America’s Cup in 1962 and a subsequent one in 1970. Frank Packer was married again, to longtime family friend Florence Vincent, in 1964.
In 1961, Packer bought The Bulletin, and – under the editorship of Donald Horne – restored the ailing magazine to good health. But, through the later 60s and into the 70s, Frank Packer’s own health caused concern on several fronts, though his hands-on involvement with his business and political interests never let up. Nor did the controversy that always swirled around him.
He was on the frontlines of bitter pay disputes with printing and journalists’ unions; a close friendship with William “Billy” McMahon ended badly after Packer, who’d campaigned hard to get McMahon the prime ministership, became disenchanted and turned against him; Clyde and Kerry convinced him to sell the Telegraphs to Rupert Murdoch; Clyde – by now running the firm’s television interests – finally tired of his father’s interference and intransigence, went public with his complaints and left the fold.
On 1May 1974, Frank Packer succumbed to pneumonia after a minor operation. He was 67. At his funeral, Vincent Fairfax – a member of a clan he had long fought with – described him as “a great, strong and boisterous Australian” whose “ruggedness of approach, his gambling instinct, his satisfaction in confusing and defeating competitors sometimes got a little mixed up in their application”.
Bob Kearsley has been in journalism for almost 60 years, mainly in television news. He was at GTV9 when Frank Packer took it over in the early 60s and retired from it in 2007, after spells overseas with the BBC and Visnews and in Australia with the ABC and the Seven Network.
Frank Packer in 1943. Courtesy of Fairfax
Sir Frank – The Frank Packer Story, R.S. Whitington, Cassell, Australia, 1971.
The House of Packer – The Making of a Media Empire, Bridget Griffen-Foley, Allen & Unwin 1999.
Sir Frank Packer – A Biography, Bridget Griffen-Foley, Sydney University Press 2014.