Kerry Stokes is one of our last old-style media moguls, but he’s no Lord Copper.
With controlling stakes in Australia’s highest-rating TV network, Channel Seven, the nation’s second-biggest magazine group, Pacific Magazines (publisher of New Idea), and The West Australian, WA’s only daily newspaper, the 71-year old tycoon should be a real power in the land.
But the one-time street kid and TV repairman has never been interested in throwing his weight around in the same way as Rupert or Big Kerry. And he told The Power Index last week: “I don’t believe I have power. If I did, I might be tempted to use it.”
However, Stokes does mix it with his fellow proprietors: he gave James Packer palpitations two years ago when he muscled in on Consolidated Media Holdings (which owns 50% of Fox Sports and 25% of Foxtel), and he may be about to ruffle Lachlan Murdoch’s feathers at Channel Ten, where he has just bought a 2.1% share.
He has also intervened in his newspapers, TV stations and magazines in the past. Back in the 1990s, Stokes took a close interest in what his TV network produced and desperately wanted to be proud of it. The expensive and short-lived current affairs program Witness — which I worked on — was very much his baby.
He was less gloriously involved when Seven pulled a Today Tonight exposé of Victorian premier Jeff Kennett’s share dealings in 1996, minutes before it went to air. Stokes claimed to know nothing about this decision, but later dismissed journalists responsible for the story, which Seven’s MD Gary Rice believed could do the network “enormous damage in Victoria”.
In 2002, he intervened even more directly at New Idea, giving the order to pulp 100,000 copies, without consulting its editor. The magazine was set to splash a story on James Packer’s tryst with a British glamour model known as “the Pleasure Machine”. Stokes, who was in the midst of delicate negotiations with the Packer family over ownership of TV Week told The Power Index he was concerned they would be sued.
More recently, in 2007, Kerry flexed his muscles at The West Australian by buying a 20% stake and gaining control of the board, which then sacked editor Paul Armstrong. However, there was widespread support for this move. Two years earlier, WA’s Attorney General Jim McGinty had branded the newspaper “the nation’s most inaccurate and dishonest”, and Labor Premier Alan Carpenter had called urgently for Armstrong to be fired.
“The West Australian seemed to be at war with everyone,” Stokes told The Power Index, “its suppliers, distributors and readers, and the public service.” At the time Stokes claimed it was about “bringing the newspaper back to a standard we want it to be in this state”.
Some wish the media mogul would now take a similar approach to Seven’s Today Tonight. But, with David Leckie still in overall charge of his network, we’re not sure he’d dare.
There are other ways in which Stokes fails to fit the mould: he’s tall but he stoops; he struggles to look smart, and he doesn’t try to dominate the room like most alpha males. Friendly, unassuming and slightly sleepy, with a husky voice, he’s a dead ringer for Colombo in the TV detective series of that name.
But you don’t get to be worth $2 billion without being tough, and he’s certainly not a man to cross in business, as his pay-TV rivals, Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch and Telstra, discovered when they ganged up on him (as he saw it). “Stokes is a man who has never allowed the odds to dictate terms to him and he will not be denied what he sees as his due,” John Birmingham observed in The Monthly in 2006.
Born John Althorpe 71 years ago in wartime Melbourne, Stokes is the son of a Melbourne barmaid who gave him up for adoption. He never met his mother and never knew his father.
“My background was very difficult, very hard, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” he told the ABC in 2000. “I spent some time on the street. I had lots of different occupations and obviously lots of different experiences.”