We have said our final farewell to Kerry Packer and absorbed all the speeches and obituaries. What a colossus he was, what a hurt little boy. How impressive and at the same time how weak. It is a reminder that charisma almost always relies on an element of vulnerability. It is also a reminder that wealth and power are no answer to mortality. Old men die.
And one day Rupert Murdoch will be dead too. What will happen then?
Murdoch is 75. On his mother’s side he comes from long-lived stock, but his father died at just 66 after heart problems and treatment for prostate cancer. Rupert himself was cured of prostate cancer at 69. It must have been a considerable psychological landmark for him. He declared, revealingly, “I’m now convinced of my own immortality.”
Nevertheless he will die, and probably before too long.
Neil Hickey considered the question of “after Rupert” last year in the Columbia Journalism Review. “What happens to News Corporation, the Brobdingnagian contraption (Murdoch) virtually willed into existence by the power of his ingenuity and his willingness to place huge, risky bets? More than any other media baron Murdoch is the walking, breathing incarnation of his company.”
Hickey concluded the Murdoch children would probably continue to run a much altered empire, possibly subject to shareholder revolt. But Hickey was writing before Lachlan Murdoch shucked off the harness.
News Limited insiders speculate that, given the company is much more about entertainment than journalism these days, once Rupert is gone the Australian holdings may be hived off – and that this may be one reason News Limited is loosing interest in media reform in this country.
It has even been speculated that Lachlan Murdoch might buy News Limited’s Australian newspaper interests. Newspapers always were his chief passion, and a clash between this and the “Hollywood” side of the company, represented by Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin, was one of the reasons for his departure, as detailed in this landmark New York profile. Maybe his brother James will run the rest of the empire, or maybe it will break up. Certainly it will not be the same.
The pressure these days is for media companies to be more conventional – less passionate, less of the religious zeal for journalism among other things – and more accountable to a broad shareholding base.
Kerry Packer’s departure reminds us that the age of the fearsome proprietors may be fading. When we ask what comes next for media, we need to remember this.