The PBL board meets next Wednesday and there’s growing speculation that Sam Chisholm will depart and perhaps end up as the new chairman of the ABC.

All this will be very new for incoming directors, Chris Corrigan, Chris Mackay and Geoff Dixon (who will be tearing himself away from trying to get Qantas’s numbers right for 2006).

Do they have any skills that could help PBL handle its present crisis where its Nine Network flounders like, well, a flounder? Could they stop Nine making wrong decisions, alienating staff, viewers and advertisers and their advisers, like the powerful Harold Mitchell?

Or is PBL still a one-man band, with that one man more interested in playing polo in far-off England? Someone whose involvement in the huge losses of the disaster known as OneTel is still being raked over in a Sydney court? Being out of sight for Jodee Rich’s testimony was a smart move, even if it made him look like a rich playboy.

The new talent will assemble for that meeting but as they sit down around the big table at Park Street, every one of them will be wondering about three people: James Packer, his CEO John Alexander, and veteran TV man and former Telstra director, Sam Chisholm.

Packer is likely to be on the phone from England, Alexander will be back from Wimbledon and Chisholm should be back from an overseas trip.

The past week’s events over the affidavit by former Nine News and Current Affairs boss, Mark Llewellyn, has seriously exposed the rift between Chisholm and his one-time protege, Alexander.

Chisholm helped educate Alexander in the ways of the Sydney media and business worlds when he was running Nine in the 80s. Back then, Alexander was at Australian Business magazine and then at the Sydney Morning Herald, first as business editor and then editor (under the watchful eye of another mentor, Chris Anderson, now a senior director of PBL).

The Llewellyn affidavit contains the very revealing warning to Llewellyn from Chisholm about “watching your back” when he, Chisholm, was gone and how Llewellyn had to be careful of Alexander.

“Your life is going to be a nightmare. You are going to have to watch your back. The truth is they will want to bump you off and stick [John] Lyons [EP of Sunday] in”.

There were other telling points: when Chisholm offered Llewellyn the News and Current Affairs director’s role he took him to meet Kerry Packer to be “anointed”.

Cut out of the appointment was PBL CEO, John Alexander, the man to whom Chisholm nominally reported as head of Nine. Alexander was nowhere to be seen in the transaction. That was a black mark against Chisholm.

When Llewellyn tried to remove (as he claims) John Lyons as head of the Sunday program, Alexander was on the phone overruling the decision and asking several times, “Did Sam make you do this?”

And “I tell you Sam is not going to be around for long. I’m telling you that now. James likes him but Sam’s time is over”.

The mentoree had turned against the mentor, and within a month Chisholm was gone as head of Nine and Eddie McGuire was in.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey