1937 - 2005 | NSW | Proprietor
Kerry Packer emerged from the shadow of his father - and nine months in an iron lung as a childhood polio victim - to become Australia’s richest man and a powerful media baron. He started work loading newspapers at his father’s Daily Telegraph, but when it came to investing his inheritance, Kerry favoured television, casinos and land over newspapers. Internationally, he is best-known for unleashing the 1977 cricket revolution that transformed the game. Kerry Packer was a hands-on proprietor, philanderer, heavy smoker, gambler, philanthropist, spectacular deal-maker and brutal opponent, but steadfastly loyal to employees and associates he trusted and liked.
Kerry Packer has been famously described as the King Kong of media magnates. By his own admission that brutish image was not without a grain of truth. “I don’t know another way to manage people than through fear, to scare the shit out of them,” he confided to trusted friends.
Such tactics certainly applied in the first months after the death of his despotic father, Sir Frank, in May 1974. Kerry, at the age of 36, found himself in sole control of a publishing and television empire worth $100 million.
By then he had proved his prowess in the hotly competitive field of women’s magazines, championing the successful launch of Cleo, edited by Ita Buttrose. Television, however, was clearly destined to become the most lucrative of assets and Packer was poorly equipped to take charge of the Nine Network. His older brother Clyde had overseen that side of the business until his father’s constant meddling caused him to break all ties with the family. The last straw was having his star recruit, Mike Willesee, quit on the spot after Sir Frank banned an interview with union leader Bob Hawke.
Kerry would go on to spend torturous nights with little or no sleep as he tried to unravel the mysteries of the visual medium. Memory of his father dubbing him ‘the idiot son’ could hardly have helped his confidence. Others might take relief from a glass of wine or two at dinner but the youngest Packer had been a non-drinker since his teenage years, a decision traceable to his involvement in a fatal car crash. He dosed himself instead with potent prescription drugs.
So it was that his weekly meetings with senior executives from TCN 9 in Sydney and GTV 9 in Melbourne became the stuff of legend. A poor ratings report could trigger volcanic rages with phones ripped out, furniture smashed. He once hurled a cricket ball at the head of a programmer who dared to suggest cancelling a program he was fond of. Luckily, he missed.
Still, within a little more than two years of taking command Packer had come up with his own unique formula for running a successful TV network. An addictive gambler, he was prepared to bet his entire fortune on it.
Up to then, the three commercial stations were secretly bound to a keep-off-the-grass code. The advertising dollars pouring in were more than enough to ensure everyone a tidy profit, so why be overly competitive? Kerry, however, was astute enough to recognise the huge profits to flow from becoming undisputed number one in the ratings. Advertisers would happily pay a sizable premium to gain maximum exposure for their product.
The new strategy was set in motion by his key advisers in a meeting held on Wednesday 27 October 1976. As priority targets, they decided to steal the two biggest names in TV entertainment: Channel 7’s Paul Hogan and Channel 10’s midday talk show host Mike Walsh. Whatever the price, it would offer double value: attracting new audiences while damaging the competition.
Inflated contract fees turned out to be a mere fraction of the fortune spent on sport. Packer personally approached the Australian Cricket Board seeking broadcasting rights for eight times more than the ABC was paying. When conservative Board members rejected the bid, he quickly decided to launch his own version of the game.
World Series Cricket made its debut in 1977, only to be shunned by a sceptical public. The next season, however, brought the spectacle of day-night matches under powerful floodlights, attracting huge crowds. Ultimately, a secret meeting between Packer and Sir Donald Bradman, in February 1979, brought a settlement allowing the Nine Network to dominate coverage for years to come.
As Packer became more self-assured he mellowed considerably in his leadership style, giving all the encouragement he could to the executive producers directly in charge of various areas of programming. “I don’t give a fuck what it takes,” he assured them, “just do it and get it right.”
With that pledge, the technical wizardry of multi-camera coverage changed cricket virtually overnight from a polite game for gentlemen to gladiatorial combat between batsman and bowler — compulsive viewing for a new generation of devotees.
The network’s lavish entertainment specials matched any in the world. In current affairs, 60 Minutes would soon break all ratings records, sealing Packer’s quest to dominate the ad market.
On 20 January 1987 Kerry announced the sale of his Sydney and Melbourne stations to entrepreneur Alan Bond for a fabled billion dollars. That would prove to be somewhat of an exaggeration, given that the actual wording of the contract provided for a sizable loan to Bond as well. Even so, within three years the collapse of the Bond empire allowed Packer to regain control of TCN9 and GTV9, plus Brisbane’s QTQ9, at a fraction of their value.
By then, though, the internet was beginning to bite into TV ad revenues and Packer himself was debilitated by increasingly serious health issues. They included a near-fatal heart attack while playing polo in 1990 and a kidney transplant in 2000, the organ donated by his helicopter pilot, Nick Ross.
This final stage of Packer’s reign was much like a Shakespearean tragedy: a sick and aging monarch feebly trying to impose his will in a rapidly changing world. His son, James, saw the need to introduce cost-cutting measures and begin seeking other more promising investments. The conflict between them inevitably led to factional strife, sackings and resignations. Some of Nine’s most talented managers would go on to lead the Seven Network to top of the ratings.
Apart from his achievements as a media proprietor, Packer was frequently in the news for his strong views and secretive personal life. In the early 1980s he was widely rumoured to be the key suspect in a Royal Commission investigating high-level tax evasion, drug dealing, porn pedalling, even murder. The National Times newspaper, claiming inside leaks from the inquiry, used only the code name Goanna to avoid a massive libel suit. To stop the damaging gossip, legal adviser Malcolm Turnbull urged Packer to issue a strong statement denying all charges. The strategy won him great sympathy but hardly made up for the most stressful chapter in his life, bringing him close to suicide.
Ironically, Turnbull would later claim Packer actually “threatened to kill me” during an aborted bid to buy the Fairfax newspapers. The media baron, Turnbull claimed, “could be pretty scary”.
Packer was always a great admirer of Rupert Murdoch (despite having been beaten up by a band of pro-Murdoch bullyboys during the ’Wild Men’ days of the early 1960s) and he is closest to matching Murdoch in his achievements. While he remained focussed on Australia, he made sure that television news and current affairs in this country reflected the best of international standards. Meanwhile, his personal contribution to the development of cricket brought him international recognition on a level at least equal to Murdoch.
Towards the end of 2005, Packer’s donated kidney began to fail him and he decided against any further treatment. For some weeks he had been living away from his eastern suburbs Sydney home in an apartment shared with his long-time mistress, Julie Trethowan. Despite that, he held his wife Roslyn in high esteem and chose to spend his last moments in their marital home.
On 26 December, surrounded by medical staff, he rapidly slipped away under the heaviest of medication. To the dismay of all around him he suddenly awoke. “Am I still here?” he demanded. “How fucking long is this going to take?” Kerry Packer, in command to the last.
Gerald Stone is a member of the Australian Media Hall of Fame. He is best known as founding Executive Producer of 60 Minutes. He joined Channel Nine just after Kerry Packer took over and the two had a close – if often combative – professional relationship.
Kerry Packer in 1997. Courtesy of Fairfax
The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer, Paul Barry, Bantam, 2008
The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire, Bridget Griffen-Foley, Allen & Unwin, 2000
Compulsive Viewing, Gerald Stone, Penguin, 2001
Who Killed Channel Nine, Gerald Stone, Pan Macmillan, 2007