Liz Knight’s Sydney Morning Herald scoop this morning about why James Packer raided the Ten Network raises the question, was he acting on inside information?

Knight reported: “Nick Falloon, the executive chairman of Ten Network, had been secretly working on a management buyout of the television network before James Packer pounced on 18 per cent of the shares in a lightning sharemarket raid last week.

“Mr Falloon, who has agreed to leave the company, was working with the US private equity investor Hellman & Friedman, which was to have financed the deal to take Ten private.”

And fellow Fairfaxian, David Symons made other points that raise other questions as well:

“Plans for a buyout of Ten might have been stymied, but Ten isn’t the only asset available in the local TV industry.

“Both Falloon and Brian Powers, chairman of Hellman & Friedman, have a historical connection with PBL Media.

“Powers was chairman and chief executive of Publishing & Broadcasting Limited (as PBL was then known) between 1994 and 1998, before passing the chief executive’s baton to Falloon.”

So we have James Packer buying Ten shares in secret, knowing that a former employee in Falloon and another in Powers, were discussing a bid to take Ten private. This is starting to sound very incestuous and typical of the narrow world at the top of the Australian media

That immediately raises the question, when did Packer know of the buyout proposal?

It was, as we have seen from his buying, extremely market-sensitive. Was this inside information?

Given that Falloon is executive chairman of Ten, why didn’t he disclose this proposal? Was it a case that they were not all that advanced in their proposal and the Packer raid was well-timed? That does seem to be the best explanation at the moment.

So news yesterday that Falloon will step down as Ten chairman, after the AGM on December 9, should be taken with a grain of salt. Would he have disclosed the bid before the AGM, if the Packer raid had not happened?

And a final point, to all those media writers, especially at The Australian and AFR, James Packer didn’t see value in Ten, as many of you have claimed. He merely bought the shares to frustrate a former employee’s attempt to take Ten private. Falloon saw the value, not Packer. After all, he had plenty of time to assemble a position in Ten in the months before his move in October, and he didn’t.

All this talk about how Mr Packer is not happy about the way Ten is going, the programming moves, such as the One sports network and the planned new hour of News from 6-7pm, is post-facto rationalising of the move to frustrate the buyout.

And who leaked the news of the Falloon/Brian Powers move, not to Knight, but to the Packer camp? If the Falloon group had started approaching banks about raising the $1.5 billion or so for the buyout, was there a breach of confidentiality?

Knight’s disclosures and the questions they raise should be enough to get ASIC off its bum and asking some questions about the timing of the buying and the lack of disclosure, if only to put to rest any questions relating to inside information.

Peter Fray

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