There wasn’t much subtlety about working for a Kerry Packer publication, but it was good fun.
After finance editor Bruce Jacques and I wrote a feature about how Sir Peter Abeles had sunk half a billion into Hayman Island in a fabulously wasteful folly he wrote to Packer demanding we be sacked.
We knew that because Packer sent a message to us that he had told his high stakes card playing “mate” to “go f-ck himself.”
However such encouragement to write “hard” was fickle and arbitrary, as David Dale, who had succeeded Ian Frykberg as editor, found by persisting with a Human Balance Sheet edition that was a thinly disguised version of one headlined as Australia’s 100 most appalling people. Which Packer hated, being close friends with some of them.
Dale displayed his powers of observation by mentioning, if I remember correctly, that he had just been fired by a shorts-wearing Packer and was leaving immediately, almost as if that sight was as good a reason for going as any. I recall double parking outside The Bulletin, collectively helping him clear out several cardboard boxes of personal items before the buffoonish ritual of guards turning up to escort him from the building could get into full magisterial swing.
My six years and three months at The Bulletin had some quirky moments. When Ian Frykberg induced me to leave the Sydney Morning Herald for twice the money, the publisher Richard Walsh alluded during a meeting between the three of us to himself being like the Pope washing the feet of the priests.
For some months I shared an office with Tony Abbott.
Tony had robust telephone conversations in which he sometimes referred to himself as “Vlad the Impaler.” I didn’t take notes. However I did win a bet that Barrie Unsworth would lose the NSW Premiership to Nick Greiner in the 1988 election. Tony seemed quite close to the right wing power brokers in State Labor of that time and left us with the impression that he saw a potential political future for himself in that faction.
Before getting fired, Dale lifted the profile of The Bulletin as the magazine of contemporary anthropology, just as Frykberg before him (while on loan from his real job running Nine’s The Today Show) made it a blunt or sharp instrument of political reporting depending on which technique would cause more havoc.
Dale used the late celebrity and lifestyle photographer Rennie Ellis to illustrate his passion for observing the Australian way. On a rare evening visit by Rennie to the office to check the proofs of a feature we had done on a Christopher Skase extravaganza, he saved the day when he saw that one of the photos, of two completely n-ked women wrestling with a naked man while covered in jelly, had been chosen by David for its “charming juxtaposition” with the more gowned and jewelled finery of a Mirage Resort knees up.
It was of course something Rennie had shot “elsewhere,” but was on the same roll.
My third editor on The Bulletin was the late James Hall, who became the unflinching firewall between management and writers and in my opinion gave the modern magazine its finest unbroken period of “fiercely fair” writing.
Hall was succeeded by Lyndall Crisp at a time when many expected The Bulletin was at imminent risk of closure as had happened to Australian Business and was clearly going to overtake what became its short lived glossy epilogue, ABM or Australian Business Monthly.
The amount of supremely well cellared Grange served at in-house editorial luncheons in the Park Street dining room with influential guests rose sharply. There was a sense of theatre in an adjacent luxury spa and gymnasium where Packer and son and assorted ACP executives and staff retreated for exercise, coffee or plotting.
Crisp seemed to be dealing with a more menacing management than her predecessors but once noted that the hired corporate renovator “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, who turned up in the same interval, shared a common soft spot for large pet dogs.
The pressure and sense of unhappiness at The Bulletin grew. She was fired and then rehired after the intervention of veteran columnist and Packer family retainer, the late David McNicholl, and in due course fired me.