Robert Clyde Packer

1879-1934   |    TAS, NSW    |    Journalist and editor

Founder of a media dynasty that endured for a century, Packer entered journalism in Hobart before moving to the mainland in 1902. After a country apprenticeship, he edited the Sydney Sunday Times. From 1919, he managed the larrikin diggers’ newspaper, Smith’s Weekly, laying the foundations of the Packer press and television empire. A journalist and editor, he was a keen observer of overseas newspapers with an eye for populist stunts. Packer helped to launch the Daily and Sunday Guardians, and controversially arranged a deal as managing editor of Associated Newspapers Ltd that financed the creation of the iconic Australian Women’s Weekly.

... The pattern of the modern newspaper boss, innovative, cynical, thriving on hard work, inspiring loyalty as well as enmity, politically influential but chiefly concerned with commercial advantage.

Richard White, on R.C. Packer



Robert Clyde Packer
By Bridget Griffen-Foley

Of the four generations of Packer men who for a century dominated the Australian media landscape, Robert Clyde Packer was the only journalist and editor. Nevertheless, he was as ambitious and mercurial as his son Frank, grandson Kerry and great-grandson James, and equally as controversial.

R.C. (“Clyde”) Packer, whose favourite book at school was Dr Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help (1859), served his apprenticeship on the Tasmanian News. Here he picked up the fundamentals of typing and shorthand, with his knowledge of music and sport making him a versatile reporter. Around 1902 he left Hobart, which proved too small and complacent for someone with his energy and vision. Although his family was distinguished in Tasmanian musical circles and the civil service, he was regarded as “new money” when he later flourished in Sydney.

Armed with excellent references, Packer did however lack letters of introduction to Sydney newspaper editors. After marrying Irish-born Ethel Maude Hewson, Packer joined the Dubbo Liberal, securing several scoops. By 1907 he was editing the Coffs Harbour Advocate, turning his hand to everything from reporting on local council elections to writing editorials and churning out serials.

After a stint on the Townsville Daily Bulletin, Packer returned to Sydney in 1908, securing a post on the Sunday Times. He and the editor began enthusiastically recruiting for the fledgling Boy Scout movement in New South Wales, with Packer becoming the state’s chief scoutmaster. Editor himself by 1913, Packer was also in charge of two sporting weeklies. Falling out with the Sunday Times’ new owner, entrepreneurial hustler Hugh D. McIntosh, Packer finally fulfilled his ambition to enter Sydney daily journalism when he joined the Sun.

Rejected by the AIF on medical grounds, Packer was granted leave from the paper to assist James Joynton Smith, Lord Mayor of Sydney, to promote the highly successful Seventh War Loan. Funded by Smith, Smith’s Weekly was launched in 1919, with Packer as manager and Claude McKay as editor. This larrikin diggers’ newspaper played politics hard and featured splendid black-and-white artwork. When it turned a profit, Smith awarded each of his astonished partners a one-third share. Packer’s proprietorial ambitions had been fulfilled at last, laying the foundations of the Packer press, television and gambling empire.

The enterprising trio launched the Daily Guardian in 1923, aging “ten years in ten months” as Smith staked the last penny of his fortune on a paper inspired by the endeavours of Lord Northcliffe and William Randolph Hearst, with a little of the Sun thrown in for good measure. Packer paid top salaries but drove his staff (as well as himself) hard, resulting in at least one prosecution under the Conciliation and Arbitration Act, and inspiring in-house ditties such as “Packer’s the man to roar like Hell”. In the cesspit that was New South Wales politics, he and the Guardian’s editor, Voltaire Molesworth (also a Labor MP), linked J.T. Lang with communism and became more vociferous in 1926 when now Premier Lang floated the idea of a newspaper tax. The following year the trio that had founded Smith’s Newspapers Ltd collapsed, leaving Packer with virtual control of the company.

In early 1930, Sir Hugh Denison’s rapacious Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL) purchased the Daily Guardian and the new Sunday Guardian. In return for a generous cash and share settlement, Smith’s Newspapers agreed not to compete for 21 years with Clyde Packer’s old newspaper, the Sunday Times, concluding that Denison had been “sold a pup”. In 1931, Clyde joined ANL as managing editor to protect the shares he and his son Frank held in the company, which was floundering due to publishing competing titles in the midst of the Great Depression. Observing Clyde Packer’s success building circulations for a range of titles, Newspaper News remarked that he was essentially “a newspaper builder, as distinct from a successful manager who comes into a business merely to ‘carry on’.”

Tired, and with heart and chest problems, Packer failed in a bid to install his son at ANL in 1932. Then Lang introduced a bill into parliament, ostensibly to protect shareholders in Smith’s Newspapers, that with its retrospective clause would have bankrupted Packer. Lang sensationally declared Packer and Joynton Smith “guilty of absolute theft”. Clyde and Frank conducted a frantic behind-the-scenes lobbying operation - “like a chapter in some brightly written history of Chicago”, wrote Clyde’s editorial protégée Eric Baume - against the bill before it lapsed.

Later that year, Frank Packer and former Labor politician E.G. Theodore threatened to publish an afternoon newspaper, forming a new company, Sydney Newspapers Ltd. Clyde Packer authorised ANL to pay £86,500 to his son’s company not to publish an afternoon paper for three years. The extraordinary transaction, which Lang described in parliament as “barefaced robbery”, preserved the Sydney monopoly of the Sun, the jewel in ANL’s crown, but provided Sydney Newspapers with the capital to launch – in June 1933 – the Australian Women’s Weekly, which was to become Australia’s bestselling magazine. It also led to the formation of Australian Consolidated Press, the flagship media company of Frank Packer and his son Kerry.

Clyde Packer resigned from ANL for health reasons in mid-1933. He died, aged just 54, on 12 April 1934 off the coast of Marseilles, returning from his first trip abroad. The “Son of Tasmania” (as the Launceston Examiner put it), for whom sailing was his principal recreation, died with the sound of waves in his ears. His ashes were interred in a grand family vault in South Head Cemetery in Sydney’s exclusive eastern suburbs.

According to an effusive full-page obituary in his son’s magazine, R.C. Packer’s influence on Australian journalism was “as great as that of Lord Northcliffe” in Britain. To historian Richard White, Packer “was the pattern of the modern newspaper boss, innovative, cynical, thriving on hard work, inspiring loyalty as well as enmity, politically influential but chiefly concerned with commercial advantage”.

Bridget Griffen-Foley is the Director of the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University.

Courtesy of Lady Stening