The image of Kerry Packer pointing a gun at “Crocodile Dundee” director Peter Faiman when Faiman quit the Packer family’s employ is a highlight of two new books on the Packer empire. It’s an image that tells you that, despite his refusal to participate in these two insightful tomes about one of Australia’s most successful — and secretive — media dynasties, the shadow of Kerry Packer looms as large over the books as it does over the empire that functions almost in tandem with his pulse.
Historian Bridget Griffen-Foley fills a gap in previously published accounts of the founding of one of Oz’s great media houses, examining the web of political and business intrigue which saw Oz media become an oligopoly. She starts at the 1933 launch of “Australian Women’s Weekly,” from which the Packer empire grew.
A large part of that web is the often testy relationship between the Packer and Murdoch families. Their public spats, which date back to 1930, were interrupted only by truces of convenience to keep out third parties.
Gerald Stone, a former producer of the Oz edition of “60 Minutes,” gives a former insider’s view of the workings of Oz’s top-rated Nine Network, the jewel in the Packer crown, which includes Oz’s dominant magazine publisher, a stake in Hollywood’s New Regency and interests in Oz feevee, Internet, casinos and telephony.
Stone celebrates the TV medium and Packer’s role in it, warts and all, with crisp, lively prose, but his book is too long and indulgent, occasionally expounding media theory with interviewees, including former Nine owner Alan Bond, Bruce Gyngell, Fox Sports topper David Hill, James Packer and Sam Chisholm, sometimes intruding on his own fascinating recollections.
Griffen-Foley’s six years of research are often overwhelming in its detail (her book contains 100 pages of footnotes).
Nonetheless, between the two books, a clear picture emerges of dealmaking and personalities spanning four generations of Packers, who clearly have inherited more than looks alone.
All are hands-on, erratically temperamental, swift deal-makers who love making money, inspiring both fear and loyalty with their ritual tantrums and tightfisted ways, offset by incredible generosity to select lieutenants.
To be fair, while the 30-year-old James Packer (the family’s scion, now running Packer’s day-to-day operations) is still a chip off the old block, he is portrayed in these volumes as less volatile.
A portrait emerges of colorful, sports-mad, anti-intellectual and populist Packer men, who constantly try to prove themselves to their fathers.
Yet the picture one sees of Kerry Packer from both books is an idiosyncratic man who at once has the common touch, but is equally difficult; generous yet tight; paternalistically kind yet industrially belligerent; pragmatic but impractical (bringing crates of his beloved Fanta to a war zone).
And there’s a very human side to Packer in his helping impoverished children and refugees when he accompanied a camera crew to war-torn East Timor in the 1970s.
As ex-floor-wax salesman Sam Chisholm — who shared the Packer’s feel for star quality at Nine and later at Murdoch’s BSkyB — says, Rupert Murdoch might be a more focused businessman, but it is Packer’s very volatility that makes him so human.
And nowhere is that volatility more evident than the infamous Thursday TV meetings, where phones were ripped out of the walls and cricket balls hurled at petrified executives.
Neither Griffen-Foley’s study, which ends with patriarch Frank’s 1974 death (heartbroken at selling his beloved Telegraph newspaper group to Murdoch) nor Stone’s book are skedded to be published in the U.S.
That’s a shame, for the two volumes, read with Paul Barry’s “The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer,” also published by Random House in Oz a few years back, offer a complete picture of the house of Packer and the larger-than-life personalities that made it.