David Leckie would be a wonderful media mogul if he owned his own TV network. The man who made Channel Nine No. 1 for the Packers and Seven No. 1 for Kerry Stokes is loud, colourful, rude, aggressive and ideal for the role.
And even though he’s the hired help, he has probably made enough to buy one, provided it were Nine, which can now be had for next-to-nothing if you’re prepared to take on its $3.7 billion in debts.
There’s no doubt his old network misses him, too. With Leckie in charge, Seven has knocked Nine off the pedestal it occupied for 20 years, dominated breakfast TV, taken the No. 1 spot in news and grabbed almost 40% of available ad revenue.
“He’s a genius,” says one media executive who knows him well, “if you can put up with the raving.” Leckie swears, shouts, rants and bullies, but that’s just his style.
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Recently, however, his performances have worried people. At the launch of Seven’s 2012 season, he treated media buyers and journalists to a mixture of “outbursts, forgetfulness, humour, and occasionally indecipherable words”. After a similar show in 2009, there were suggestions he had an alcohol problem and had been in rehab. These were dismissed as “rubbish” by Leckie, who says he has never been fitter.
Leckie is only 60, and should have a few years in him yet, but he announced last month that he’ll be stepping down next November when his contract expires, and, sad to say, he’s being pushed.
“David has to realise he’s in the twilight of his career,” Stokes’s right-hand man Peter Gemmell told Seven’s sales director, James Warburton, last year, according to affidavits filed in Sydney’s Supreme Court. And Leckie’s best mate, news and current affairs boss Peter Meakin, is said to have agreed.
Back then, the media maestro was not prepared to make way for a younger man, even after 20 years at the top. “I’m tired, it’s time, I have no choice. I will still be involved though,” he allegedly told Warburton, who had been offered his job by Stokes. “I will not leave my office, I will still call people, I will still call the shots. I am the frigging boss of the f-ckwits at WAN, I will fix them right up.”
The “f-ckwits” at WAN were Leckie’s fellow directors at West Australian Newspapers (now controlled by Stokes), whom he allegedly described as “dopes” and “idiots”, who knew nothing about TV and couldn’t put a newspaper together. He supposedly declared a similar regard for Seven’s media buyers.
Outbursts like this have earnt Leckie the title of “most unorthodox CEO in Australia’s top 200 companies”, but Nine has bred several similar characters. Leckie’s mentor Sam Chisholm was just as colourful; John Alexander, who followed him as CEO in 2002, was probably more ruthless; and Eddie McGuire introduced “bone” to the lexicon.
And then of course there was Kerry Packer and his father Sir Frank.
Even James has strutted his TV stuff: when Leckie bowled up to the billionaire at a party in 2009 the (then) owner of Nine told his former mentor angrily to “f-ck off”. Furious at Today Tonight‘s coverage of his casino losses and links to Scientology, James then inquired: “You want to go outside now? Let’s do it.”
In happier days, Packer jnr had given the former ad salesman a gold Rolex for winning 100 ratings periods on the trot.
So why on earth did Kerry get rid of him? It seems he wouldn’t do what he was told, and treated the network like he owned it. Leckie didn’t exactly slug it out with the Big Fella, who liked to shout at him for an hour in their weekly meetings, but he was one of the few who stood his ground and didn’t flinch. At two metres tall, he was big enough to do so.