In the old days we would have called them media moguls. And the Packers, Murdochs and Fairfaxes would have been first out of the hat. But most of the famous old barons have died, sold up or quit the field, and handed their empires over to managers instead.
Few tycoons nowadays keep newspapers or TV stations as their personal playthings, writing the headlines and dictating editorials as Sir Frank Packer used to do, or ringing the station to pull broadcasts off air, as Kerry once did. Few use their media empires to spout their views, bully governments and advance their business interests, apart from Rupert Murdoch, who still does his best.
But even “managers” in TV and newspapers are more colourful than the average bean counter, so we’re dubbing them “media maestros” instead, and recognising that our list is a bit of a mixture. Some are traditional owners; some are the hired help. Some are so good they’ve ended up owning a fair bit of what they run. But all have power to affect what we read, watch, hear or are subjected to in the media.
Rupert Murdoch is one man who still fits the mould made famous by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop, with his great Lord Copper character. At 81, the Sun King can still fly into Australia to sack his right-hand man, rip up the front pages and terrify his editors. And they still hang on his every word, in case they should fail to catch a passing wish. He must slow down or die eventually, but on his latest trip down under he was looking much fitter and sharper than he has been.
Little Kerry, as he was called when Kerry Packer was alive, is definitely a mogul, in that he’s a billionaire owner of a big TV and magazine empire. But he doesn’t throw his weight around like the titans of old, and he’s never had an obvious political agenda. He’s also been known to talk soberly about the responsibilities of the media to shape Australia’s future, although his journalists at Today Tonight can’t have been listening.
David Leckie, who runs Seven for Stokes, would make a wonderful media mogul, given half a chance. In fact, Kerry Packer wanted to sack him long before he did, because he treated the place like it was his network. “He’s a genius,” says one media executive who knows him well, “if you can put up with his raving.” At the recent launch of Seven’s new season, Leckie’s speech was a mixture of “outbursts, forgetfulness, humour, and occasionally indecipherable words”. But at least he didn’t call his industry colleagues “dopes” and “f-ckwits” as he’s once said to have done. When it comes to running a TV station, Leckie is the best, and that’s why Seven is number one. It’s also why he’s now worth a couple of hundred million dollars.
Mark Scott never looked like a mogul till he got to run the ABC. A lacklustre editor-in-chief at Fairfax, where he spent most of his time taming the unions, he has been a surprise success at the national broadcaster, where he has dragged its cardigan cadres into the 21st century. Scott has got the government off the ABC’s back, led the digital revolution and told the world about it all on Twitter. He still has his critics, but we reckon he’s doing well. And if you run the ABC, you do have power.
Lachlan Murdoch would love to be a mogul, when he gets rid of those training wheels. Now managing director of Channel Ten, and a 9% shareholder in the network, Rupert’s 40-year old eldest son is certainly shaping the Australian media landscape. Lachlan has dumped George Negus from the 6.30 slot and brought in right-wing warrior Andrew Bolt for Sundays. But his biggest gamble is hiring ex-TVNZ host, Paul “dickshit” Henry, to front Ten’s new breakfast program. If that turns out to be a great idea it will be one of Lachlan’s first. His record up to now has been dismal.
Greg Hywood sat in the editor’s chair at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review in the 1990s. But he’s now back running the joint, which also owns radio stations and regional newspapers. He’s sacked most of his metropolitan subeditors, has plans to close the big Sydney printing plant at Chullora (and possibly the Melbourne plant at Tullamarine), and has just lowered the paywall at The Fin. So will he make Fairfax great again? Possibly not, but Greg’s smart, ballsy and committed. And he can’t do worse than the “dopes” who’ve gone before him. (Thanks, David).