If you had to use one word to sum up life under Kerry Packer, it would be “fear.” While fear ensures obedience – and we see plenty of that from the Packer Pleasure Palace – it’s not great for creativity, which is why I bowed out after eight and a half years of working for Packer then Bond then Packer again from 1983 to 1992.
I was working as Nine’s correspondent in the US when Packer took the Nine Network back from Bond in 1990. While I didn’t witness Kerry’s return up close, I still felt the full force of it, all the way across the Pacific. The change of owernship occured not long after Iraq invaded Kuwait. In the first couple of weeks after the invasion I was pretty much able to report the Bush administration’s response to the crisis as I saw it, filing reports that took a critical look at the history of the US/Iraq relationship.
My freedom to report the situation as I saw it came to an abrupt end once the US started amassing its troops in the Gulf which also coincinded with the resumption of the Packer reign and Willoughby. I was working out of CBS in Washington and had just filed a gently critical report on the US quest to get the Germans and Japanese to bankroll its Gulf adventure.
I got a phone call from a Nine news executive who issued me with what amount to the first ever editorial directive of a political flavour that I’d ever received in my time at the network. I remember it word for word. “You should not be seen to be saying anything critical of the US presence in the Gulf,” the executive said.
From then on I was directed to focus less on the politics and more on the military build-up. My superiors were particularly interested in glowing profiles of apache helicopters, the M1 Abrams tank, and the Patriot missile batteries. They were not interested in anthing that questioned the effectiveness of any of this hardware. It was a very unhappy time. I’d gone from working for a great news service to the broadcasting equivalent of Boys’ Own Annual, all in a matter of weeks.
Struggling for an explanation for this sudden shift from commentary to pap I spoke to like-minded producers in Sydney. They told me that Packer had made it clear he wanted to take the news downmarket because he thought it wasn’t “everyman enough.”
That was perplexing given that at the time we were so far out in front in the ratings that we sometimes beat 7 and 10 combined. Some time later I saw a video copy of Packer’s famous appearance before a parliamentary committee enquiring into media ownership. It was a breathtaking and chilling performance. Here was a man who’s grown absurdly rich on owning and controlling regulated assets, yet showed complete contempt for any idea of accountability.
Many years later I ran into Paul Keating at the Quill awards in Melbourne. He retold his story of his falling-out with the big bloke over media regulation. Packer came to see him at Kirribilli house. According to Keating, Packer pointed an accusing finger at him and said, “You know what your problem is son. You believe in free enterprise and I don’t.”
That, on its own, sums up the Packer legacy.