James Packer has split his media interests from his gambling businesses, and today the Daily Telegraph is asking whether Eddie McGuire will “bone” himself as chief executive of the Nine network.

So now is as good a time as any to reflect on what is wrong at Channel Nine – the problems that go deeper than McGuire’s tenuous tenure. It’s time we talked about content – and about public trust.

For some time the Packer organisation has had a sickness.

Mark Day, bless him, pointed out the elephant in the room earlier this week. A large part of what the Packer organisation does is simply immoral. It is not good business in the larger sense of the word “good”. Day wrote:

I believe media is a positive force in society while gaming is a profound negative. Take a walk through Packer’s plum gaming asset, the Crown casino in Melbourne. It is a soulless place that never sees sunlight; it is where bright lights flash and entice you to part with your hard-earned and then more; it is where mothers park their kids at the door as they throw away the housekeeping; it is where the come-ons shriek Win! Win! Win! in the face of the statistical reality that you’ll lose, lose, lose.

For some years now Channel Nine has been the tail on a rather nasty dog – part of an organisation earning more revenue from gambling than from informing and entertaining the public.

It’s a sad piece of symbolism that last year’s Walkley awards ceremony was held at Crown Casino.

Day went on to speculate that Packer’s splitting of his businesses might be preparation for his selling out of media altogether. Perhaps this would be a good thing.

McGuire is a clever and decent man, and so too the new head of news and current affairs Garry Linnell, but there is a sickness at the heart of the Packer organisation that will make their jobs hard to perform. They struggle on. We should be sympathetic.

Even before Kerry Packer’s death, the organisation had deep cultural problems. Ask the many pre-eminent broadcasting figures who have left, many of them, such as Peter Meakin, now working for the rival Seven Network. Even the public relations operatives don’t seem to last at Channel Nine these days. Some stories are just too hard to spin.

Part of the story of decline at Channel Nine is to do with the feral corporate culture, and in particular the role of John Alexander, now executive chairman of PBL Media. Internally Alexander is known as “the black prince.” Mark Day belled this cat too in this column and this. Day described Alexander as “an intensely private man who meets the definition of Machiavellianism: ‘a tendency to manipulate others for gain, personal or not’.”

Kerry Packer loved Channel Nine. Those who knew him say this was partly a love of the control that comes from being able to decide what Australians watch and hear. He resisted new technology at every level, failing to invest in new equipment at the Channel Nine studios to the point where insiders admit that the station is now badly behind. Packer did what he could to protect the business model that he knew, and the things that brought him power and influence.

But he failed to move with the times. When Channel Seven began to threaten “The One”, Kerry Packer reasserted control, but his solution was a blast from the past, bringing back one of the old grandees of Australian commercial television, Sam Chisholm, to run the station. It was a disaster. Chisholm’s decisions, including bringing in Jessica Rowe at huge cost, and commissioning Bert’s Family Feud as a lead in to the news, hiring Sandra Levy only to terminally p-ss her off, and so on and so forth cost the network millions and helped Channel Seven to gain the upper hand. Channel Nine had lost its way.

Now he has gone, and despite the good people within it Channel Nine has become a sadly cynical organisation with many enemies, including its former employees. Hence the Mark Llewellyn “boning” affidavit, which Channel Nine insiders believe was written in the offices of Peter Meakin over at Channel Seven (see response below).

If the Packer family gets out of media, we should not mourn. Channel Nine is important because it has been one of the premier sites of Australian story-telling, and until recently was the main source of news and information for more Australians than any other. This is what I care about. I don’t give a damn about whether or not Jamie Packer and his private equity partners make more money.

Time to say good riddance, hope the Packers take John Alexander with them, and that fresh air will blow through the internecine, boyo, d-ck-swinging culture of what was once our premier storyteller.

 


 

Former Nine Network CEO Sam Chisholm writes: I have read the Margaret Simons piece of May 11 and frankly, it is ludicrous. The Program Department commissions and schedules the successes at The Nine Network. They also commission and schedule the failures. Family Feud was their idea. I certainly negotiated Newton’s arrangement with the Network and he has proved to be of very good value, taking into account 20 to 1 and Family Feud, which in my view has done a workmanlike job. Jessica Rowe is an excellent television performer and it should be borne in mind that it is not the fault of any one individual when a program doesn’t do as well as people expect. In so far as Simons’ personal observations about me are concerned, they are offensive and totally inaccurate. When David Gyngell left, Kerry asked me to do this job. As a result, a number of people in middle management were retrenched, the company’s balance sheet was tidied up and we took a long overdue write-off. Net result being annualized savings to the order of $50 million. The retrenchments, write-off and the restructuring of the business were all naturally approved by the Board. Sandra Levy in fact rang me and wanted to work with me. She is an outstanding television executive and to this day I maintain an excellent relationship with her. It is more than a little irritating to read Simons’ snide comments about Bert Newton and Jessica Rowe. She can write what she likes, but both Bert and Jessica have made significant contributions to the television industry and the wider community. They deserve better than this and Simons’ criticisms do her little credit. Simons’ views are without any factual basis, indeed she doesn’t even get close, apart from borrowing Mark Days’ observations. Ín future, it would be worthwhile querying the validity of Simons’ pieces, or at the very least, getting her to check the facts. All in all, a lousy piece of journalism.

Mark Llewellyn, executive producer, news and public affairs, Channel Seven, writes: Dear Crikey, Nine insiders may believe that my affidavit “was written in the offices of Peter Meakin over at Channel Seven” but they would be wrong — dead wrong. I absolutely reject the defamatory imputation that arises. The hand of Peter Meakin — or anyone else for that matter — is not to be found in my affidavit. At the very least, Peter would have been more literate! For the record, I was obliged to present the affidavit after Nine decided to sue me. It was drafted with my lawyer, John Laxon, in his office. It drew extensively on contemporaneous notes taken by me — and no one else. I was prepared to be cross-examined on the affidavit in open court.

Peter Fray

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