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