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The Packers, a lost heir and the end of the media dynasties

Did Sir Frank Packer have another son? Bridget Griffen-Foley updates the family story — and documents the downfall of media dynasties — in a new foreword to her Packer biography.

Pamela Williams (a Fairfax journalist) and HarperCollins (a Murdoch company) scored a coup when the scions of the Packer and Murdoch dynasties agreed to pose for the cover of her book, Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch and the Ultimate Revenge, about the decline of the once mighty Fairfax media group. James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch share not only a birthday, but the pressures of dynastic succession and the searing experience of the collapse of One.Tel. Fairfax, Packer, Murdoch — all sharing the spotlight at the launch of Killing Fairfax in July last year.

For a century, these three families have dominated the Australian media. But as the “old” media struggles to adapt to the new, with declining audiences, converging technologies and changing business models, traditional notions of the family media dynasty are also under threat.

Since the 1980s, the Fairfax empire has been lost to the family, classified advertising has collapsed and, in 2012, 1900 job losses were announced. Fairfax is now the prism through which the Australia print media will be evaluated. Since Kerry’s death in 2005, the Packer family has all but vacated its print and free-to-air television assets and transformed itself into a gaming and entertainment business. The Murdoch family business, which began spreading offshore in the 1960s, is struggling to deal with both corporate and personal scandals, while the complex issue of succession has media watchers eagerly following every breathless tweet from the octogenarian Rupert Murdoch. In June 2013 the New News Corp launched as a “Global Media and Information Services Company”, cut adrift from the profitable 21st Century Fox.

As my biography of Sir Frank Packer documented in 2000, the issue of succession at Consolidated Press had been resolved, somewhat poignantly, before Sir Frank’s death in 1974. The elder son and heir, Clyde, infuriated by yet another act of paternal interference and censorship, had resigned his management positions within the group in 1972. When Clyde’s younger brother Kerry assumed the reins two years later, The Canberra Times remarked that Sir Frank “was too much the individualist for any successor to truly emulate”.

By 2000, I was aware of a rumour that Sir Frank’s father, Robert Clyde Packer, had sired another son. Ernestine Hemmings, who had been working as a subeditor at Smith’s Weekly, where R.C. Packer was manager, had given birth to a son, Robert, on October 30, 1924 in Hobart, where Packer had spent his early life. Unmarried, Ernestine had assumed the surname Hill. There were no official records to prove the paternity of Robert Hill, whose birth was unregistered. However, Hill believed that Packer was his father, and there is mounting circumstantial evidence that this was the case. The full story of journalist and travel writer Ernestine Hill and her son Robert, who has recently died, awaits her biographer. Meanwhile, chapters two and three of Sir Frank Packer: A Biography must now be read in the context of a likely relationship between R.C. Packer and Ernestine Hill.

During the 1990s, R.C. Packer’s daughter Kathleen (Lady Stening) had proved to be a valuable source for my biography, agreeing to be interviewed on several occasions, and carefully selecting family letters and photographs from a trunk to which I was never given access. She died shortly before the first edition was published in 2000.

Sir Frank’s son Clyde had been another source, by telephone, usually very early in the morning, from his home in California. He died in 2001.

Old-fashioned, sleeves-up media proprietors have largely gone, along with their ruthless and feudal management styles …”

Kerry Packer died in Sydney on Boxing Day in 2005. The frenzy of media coverage proved the Canberra Times’ prediction wrong. When Sir Frank died, his flagship magazines The Australian Women’s Weekly and The Bulletin between them managed only three pages and a cover. For Kerry, there were commemorative editions of both magazines, followed by a state memorial service — a federal government initiative and an unprecedented honour for a businessman. In the last half-century at least, the death of no Australian, other than Don Bradman, has attracted such saturation coverage. In 2005, perhaps not even Consolidated Press could have predicted the level of interest in Kerry, with extensive coverage also in the pages of the Murdoch and Fairfax presses. It was as though Kerry Packer had finally taken over The Sydney Morning Herald by stealth. A new edition of Paul Barry’s 1994 biography was published as The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer Uncut in 2006, with the inclusion of material previously considered too risky from a legal perspective.

In December 2006, on the centenary of Sir Frank Packer’s birth, his family donated Judy Cassab’s portrait of him to the National Portrait Gallery. His widow, Lady (Florence) Packer, and Kerry’s widow, Ros, were on hand, together with the Prime Minister’s wife, Janette Howard, for the unveiling. Lady Packer’s death in Monaco in 2012 at the age of 97 saw the curtain fall on the old media moguls of Sir Frank’s generation.

The buccaneers and ideologues who made up the Australian media’s first families are largely gone. In their place are private equity players and other unsentimental financiers. Even James Packer (the somewhat premature subject of another Paul Barry biography in 2009) is now lean and mean, having lost a good part of his body weight following gastric bypass surgery in 2011. He is a shadow of his literally “larger-than-life” father and grandfather. The Packers and the Murdochs, together with their wives, girlfriends and offspring, are often now portrayed as simply rich and glamorous. They have become celebrities — usually (but not invariably) reluctant products of the media their families helped to create and control for most of the twentieth-century.

James Packer along with Elisabeth, Lachlan and James Murdoch now operate in an era of MBAs, of capital markets and shareholder value. Old-fashioned, sleeves-up media proprietors have largely gone, along with their ruthless and feudal management styles, indifference to chains of command, intuitive sense of the market and fingertip feel for numbers.

Since Kerry Packer’s death, his family, and that of the Murdochs, have been ripe for nostalgic embrace. Three dramatic mini-series have focused on the Packer empire: Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo (airing on the ABC in 2011), Howzat! The Kerry Packer War (Nine, 2012) and Paper Giants: Magazine Wars (ABC, 2013). Sir Frank, played by Tony Barry, appeared in the wings of the first Paper Giants. Now, in Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch War, the two dynasties go head-to-head. Power Games aired on Nine, the network Sir Frank himself established, and his grandson James sold. The mini-series focuses on 1960 to 1975, based in part on the second half of my Frank Packer biography. Lachy Hulme (who played Kerry Packer in Howzat!) delivers a compelling, uncanny performance as Kerry’s father. Sir Frank can also be seen on stage, in David Williamson’s new play, Rupert.

What would Sir Frank think of Power Games? Find out on Twitter, for he has made a comeback there, too: @Sir_FrankPacker.

*Bridget Griffen-Foley is director of Macquarie University’s Centre for Media History. This is the new foreword for the re-released biography Sir Frank Packer: A Biography, published by Sydney University Press.

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    a commentator from earth
    Posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Wondering if that is the same ernestine hill who wrote ‘the territory’? Famous if now somewhat old book about the NT.

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