For all the publicity for Paul Barry’s new book on James Packer, last night’s Four Corners was a “so what?” report.

There was no especially penetrating insight: his losses, poor timing, problems with One.Tel and his relationship with his father, were all well known and well exposed by various features, reports and other commentaries over the years.

Lots of business people have done something similar in this crunch: Rio Tinto, for example, wasted tens of billions of dollars on the Alcan buy in mid-2007 and nearly brought the company down or delivered into the hands of the Chinese government.

But because it is James Packer, heir of Kerry Packer, it got traction.

What was interesting were the comments from Daniel Petre, the former head of Ninemsn and Ecorp and a PBL director during the One.Tel days. Also interesting, and brutal, was the assessment of the gambling consultant in Las Vegas, Randy Fine. He obviously hadn’t been consulted by Crown and Packer; in fact Barry didn’t ask him if he was.

What wasn’t properly canvassed in the report was the role of the Crown independent directors in the North American casino adventure. Where were they in all of this? Asleep, besotted with the boy genius, or ignored or overridden?

The story failed to mention other casino adventures: the joint venture in the UK with Aspinalls and plans for a chain of regional gambling shops across the country, interest in casinos in Russia and a joint venture with Macquarie Bank in a casino chain in Western Canada. Gateways Casinos was reported to be close to breaching bank loan covenants in June of this year.

Crown has written down the value of its $224 million investment in Gateway to nil. The value of the Aspinalls’ investment is now also nil, resulting in a loss of more than $80 million. So more than $300 million in unmentioned gaming adventures.

If the James Packer had been Jim Smith and his father was Kerry Smith, then this report would not have been done. Nor would Barry have done a book.

If the Four Corners report was the best bits from the book, then the ABC has very kindly donated 45 minutes of its prime time schedule to promote Barry’s line.

The report makes it easier to understand Packer’s juvenile outburst at Sam Chisholm’s 70th birthday party in Sydney last Thursday. It was no tougher or nastier than any on the Seven Network’s Today Tonight: the one Packer confronted Nine boss David Leckie about (he’s now running Seven).

It makes you wonder if Leckie was really a “proxy” for the ABC and the constant scrutiny of his personal and business lives by the media. What Packer was really objecting to was the constant examination of both lives by the Sydney-based media.

The boof-headed News Ltd media at the Daily Telegraph and The Australian in Sydney (which have given the Packer outburst more cred than it deserved) haven’t realised this, or even thought of the fact that for all his wealth, Packer can’t fight back in a conventional way.

Odd then that the great coup of selling off his media interests, has exposed Packer to this scrutiny and left him unable to fight back with his own “take” on his rivals, such as Kerry Stokes, Leckie and others through ACP Magazines or the Nine Network. There was one go in The Bulletin in 2007 with a much nastier dump on Kerry Stokes, and Kerry Packer had Paul Keating done over on 60 Minutes and in The Bulletin.

But James Packer has nothing to fight back with except legal action, which can be more confronting, as he found in his appearances in the witness box in the One.Tel examinations, and then the ASIC case over the collapse of the Telco, which is still ongoing.

But the best comment came from Geoff Cousins, a former PBL director, who summed up James Packer’s casinos which he bought expand using the PBL Media billions.

“They’re frankly just a horrible business. They live off the misfortunes of others and they are a completely non-productive business. They don’t create anything, they just take people’s money and shove it down a hole and now and again if they’re forced to, they give a tiny bit of it back.”

And that remains the most substantive thing you can say about James Packer: he chose a grubby industry, perhaps the nastiest one that is legal in which to grow the family fortune. That he lost so spectacularly is somehow appropriate.

That’s something former PBL CEO Peter Yates didn’t appreciate in his strident defence of James Packer in the story.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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