The departures said it all. Five minutes or so after the media debate hosted in Sydney last night by the Oxford Business Alumni had finished Fairfax chairman Ron Walker rose from his seat at a corporate table.

From the middle of the room, James Packer said his goodbyes to the likes of Warwick Smith from Macquarie Bank, Alistair McLeod (a Murdoch family member) and Geoff Gallop, former WA Premier and now at the GSM at Sydney University, left the table and walked towards the door.

There he brushed past waiting media, strode towards Ron Walker and exclaimed “A very fine man!” clapped his hand on Walker’s shoulder and started talking about … well nothing.

The look on $400 million Walker’s face as he saw the $7 billion James Packer switched to almost boyish joy that he had been recognised. They were joined by Alan Jones, the hero of Jonestown, who had hosted the function and played interlocutor in the discussion about Australia’s media future with Packer, ABC boss Mark Scott, Fairfax boss David Kirk and Foxtel CEO Kim Williams.

Alan Jones (left), James Packer, Fairfax CEO David Kirk, ABC managing director Mark Scott and Foxtel CEO Kim Williams at last night’s Oxford Business Alumni Forum. Picture: Warren Clarke

Jones’s performance verged on the obsequious, no hard questioning (the questions had been agreed with the quartet beforehand), calling his interviewees James and Kim, although there was less familiarity with Kirk (it was David Kirk) and Scott (it was Mark Scott).

Now the trio fell into conversation outside the room, turned and strode off, James Packer again put his left arm around Walker’s shoulder and the small, more rotund Jones trotted along. Packer brushed past Emma Alberici from the ABC saying: “I’m not talking to you” and kept walking. There was some history there over a report she did for the 7.30 Report on Packer’s appearance at the ASIC OneTel case in Sydney.

What of the event itself? A good idea but no great enlightenment.

Mark Scott came up with the best lines: he said he was from the only organisation on the podium not seeking private equity and then, about his relations with Canberra said, that when he now goes to the Department of Communications they are happy because he’s not speaking with an American accent, not wearing a moustache and doesn’t have his “amigos” with him.

“I am no longer the problem child”, he said to general laughter in the room in answer to a question about his view on the future of Telstra.

James Packer performed well but his brutal side emerged when questioned about competition and regulation, making it clear to everyone in room that if the TV industry was deregulated or new competition allowed in then all bets would be off.

He said commercial broadcasters were subject to a series of rules such as the 55% Australian content standards, drama and children’s TV rules. “It’s easy to say deregulate and to have more TV networks but the flipside of the argument is a broadcaster has every right to say that if you take the rules away, we will be arguing children’s programming and Australian programming go. You can’t have one set of rules if one set goes.”

And finally Fairfax: there was no question asked about interest or otherwise about Fairfax which with David Kirk on the podium, was an opportunity lost. Alistair McLeod was there keeping an eye on things Fairfax for Nationwide News.

But in today’s AFR Magazine interview, he says he’s interested in Fairfax “at a price” and “not interested at a price”.

That’s curious because at the PBL AGM, which was held the day (October 26) the AFR interviews finished with a chat on Bondi Beach with the author, Pam Williams, Packer told shareholders that “we are not as fascinated with Fairfax as the Fairfax press think … we own no shares in Fairfax and we have very minimal interest in Fairfax.”

As variable as he was, Alan Jones did manage to ask one interesting question at the end, after written questions had been taken from the floor and asked by Jones (who vetted them).

Jones asked the quartet what they thought about the future of Telstra and here the answers got interesting. James Packer passed, saying “too hard”, (he’s in Foxtel with 25%); David Kirk said “I wouldn’t be very complimentary”, Mark Scott said now that it’s privately held, and launched into his comment about not being “the problem child”; Kim Williams (50% owned by Telstra) passed as well.

It was also interesting that Williams sat on a table with Mark Scott and some chaps from the ABC and Telstra.

Peter Fray

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