The Asper family’s Canwest media business, controllers of Network Ten, has been overloaded with debt ever since they paid too much for Conrad Black’s Canadian newspaper empire in a two-stage deal back in 2000-01.

However, the former fish canning entrepreneurs are still billionaires and they can very much thank the lobbying power of Kerry Packer and Kerry Stokes for their wealth.

You see, there has never been a more profitable foreign investor in Australia than the Aspers. Back in 1992, they led a consortium that injected just $90 million of equity into Network Ten, valuing the business at about $340 million when you included the $250 million in debt owing to Westpac.

The proposed sale of Ten announced yesterday values the entire business at about $4 billion and you’ve then got to consider the $600 million-plus in dividends that the Aspers have pulled out over the years through their 57% “economic interest”.

The Aspers did spend more than $200 million taking out other shareholders such as John Singleton in the 1990s but the return on investment has still been absolutely spectacular. Only Richard Branson’s Virgin Blue play has produced comparable returns for a foreign investor over the past decade.

For this, the Aspers should thank the two Kerrys for arm-twisting the Howard government into maintaining the heavily protected free-to-air oligopoly that has banned new entrants and made life so difficult for pay-TV.

The Aspers were actually friendless in Canberra for a while after they took the government to court over various issues in the late 1990s including the foreign ownership laws and their tax bills. Peter Costello used to openly savage them in political circles but they were never punished in a regulatory sense because this would have also hurt the two Kerrys.

The appointment of Nick Falloon as Network Ten executive chairman in January 2002 reopened lines of communications with Canberra courtesy of all the contacts he build up over the years working for PBL.

News Corp is the obvious buyer of Ten but Rupert Murdoch is reluctant to shell out $4 billion for a declining medium. This is why his papers have campaigned so vociferously for a new licence to be issued. Sadly for Rupert, he backed the wrong horse in sticking with Paul Keating in 1995 and the Stokes, Packer and Asper families have enjoyed the billions that have flowed from John Howard’s protection.

Peter Fray

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