Kim Williams is the new boss of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, which publishes two-thirds of Australia’s metropolitan newspapers and more than 120 suburban or regional titles. And we don’t need to tell you how powerful that makes him.
But we reckon playing second fiddle to Murdoch will be a tough gig for the one-time composer — whatever his skills — and we believe he will face four big problems.
The first is Rupert, who, at the age of 80, has appointed himself chairman of the board, and obviously intends to be around more. News is a family company — or behaves like one — and what Rupert says goes. He flies into town, grills all his editors, rips the front page apart and sacks anyone who’s not playing in tune. That will prove challenging for Williams, who conducted the orchestra at Foxtel, while the Murdochs, Packers and Telstra jostled for power in the wings.
The second problem is the pay-TV boss likes doing everything himself. The Power Index understands from people who have worked closely with him that he is a “micromanager” and a “control freak”, who insists on delaying even the most trivial decisions and campaigns until he has signed off on them. The chaps underneath him at News won’t like that much.
This will magnify his third problem, which is how to tame The Australian and The Daily Telegraph’s rampant editors — Chris Mitchell and Paul Whittaker — who have soured News’ relations with the Gillard government. If Williams wants to fix that relationship, and influence the editorial direction of the group, he will need to bring these powerful editorial barons into line. And he’ll find this hard. Unlike Big Harto, the man he replaced, he’s not a journalist and hasn’t earned their respect. And (see first problem) he’ll also have Rupert (who is a journalist) looking over his shoulder. Worse still, he might have to deal with Col Allan. The Australian has suggested that the abrasive editor of the New York Postand former editor of the Daily Telegraph may be sent back to Sydney, which would make life interesting for Williams and severely limit his power.
Fourth is the nature of the task he faces. As circulations decline and newspapers shut down around the world, Williams’ job is to make readers pay for news on the internet. And he’s got to perform the trick on Murdoch’s mass-market tabloids, as well as The Australian, which is currently trialling a paywall.
So is he a strange choice for the job, as some have suggested?
“No”, says one who has known him well for decades. “He’s a genius: he’s persistent, he’s bright, he’s competitive. He turned Foxtel round from being a big drag on revenue to being highly profitable, and he’s just the man Murdoch needs if his strategy is to make money out of papers on the internet.”
“But,” he cautions, “Kim’s got no experience in journalism, and he has a deep disdain for journalists, because they’re outsiders and he’s an insider.” That’s going to make life difficult for him, and for the journalists he’ll be managing.
On the plus side, Williams has friends in high places and is a world-class schmoozer. His second wife Catherine Dovey (his first was Kathy Lette) is the daughter of Labor god Gough Whitlam, while Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer are two of his biggest fans.
He has worked hard on this, of course. “Yes, he’s a courtier,” says our informant, “but he hasn’t built his career on charm alone. He’s always had a big brain, and he’s incredibly determined and astonishingly competitive.” Even at playtime.
In this context, The Power Index can reveal Williams was Australian Lego champion as a teenager. Nowadays, he focuses on winning arguments. And rarely does he countenance defeat, as we discovered when we asked what would happen if the Foxtel-Austar merger fell over. “I have not contemplated not being successful,” he replied.
The bald-headed, black-spectacled culture lover is also “extremely ambitious”, sometimes to the detriment of friendship and loyalty.