Is another correction and apology on the way from Fairfax Media to a leading media figure?

Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald published this correction to a story about former News Corp boss Kim Williams; now Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes is on the prowl. The reclusive Stokes is enjoying an unwelcome moment in the spotlight thanks to the publication of Margaret Simons’ unauthorised biography Kerry Stokes: Self-made man, released today through Penguin Books.

Here’s the back story. In a move that may become increasingly popular among publishers, Penguin decided not to do an extract deal for the book. Financially struggling newspapers are less inclined to pay for book extracts than they once were, and there’s a lively debate in the publishing industry about whether lengthy extracts cannibalise book sales or encourage them. Instead of an extract, Fairfax’s Malcolm Knox interviewed Simons and was given advance access to the book. The result was a lengthy cover piece in Good Weekend and a prominent news story in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

The Good Weekend piece prompted a speedy letter of protest from Seven’s commercial director and legal boffin Bruce McWilliam. Seven is peeved about the retelling of an infamous 1996 incident in which Seven’s senior management pulled a critical Today Tonight story on Jeff Kennett at a time when Stokes was chasing opportunities in Victoria. Simons’ book notes the story went to air the following night after public outrage; the Good Weekend piece didn’t. Seven is angry at the omission, wants a correction and apology, and is reserving the right to take legal action. For now, the piece remains unaltered online.

Today is a nervous day for both Stokes and Simons, a media academic and former Crikey writer. Stokes didn’t read the book before publication and will be eager to discover how he is portrayed in the first comprehensive account of his life and career. He’s a famously private, litigious man and his lawyers will be combing through the tome for any perceived infractions. Stokes rebuffed offers to be interviewed for the book and his office declined offers to fact-check Simons’ manuscript.

A year after Simons began work on her book, it was announced Stokes had agreed to co-operate with Herald Sun journalist Andrew Rule for a biography. In her introduction, Simons claims Stokes’ minders discouraged people from talking to her but opened doors for Rule.

Penguin, of course, had the book carefully lawyered and fact-checked before publication. Even if Stokes’ lawyers find something to quibble with, they will have to ask: would kicking up a stink only give the book more PR?

Self-made man is neither hagiography nor hatchet job. Although Simons spoke to Stokes’ disgruntled first wife and children, the book’s focus is his business deals. Simons’ thesis is that Stokes is a “complex, driven, in many ways admirable but also ruthless man, with, as is the case with all of us and perhaps particularly the rich and powerful, elements of saint and sinner”. She concludes he is an entirely different mogul — for better and worse — than Kerry Packer or Rupert Murdoch. Simons writes:

“All the fine words he has said at various times through his career about quality journalism have come to nothing. He has given those aspirations away under pressure. He dropped Michelle Grattan when she was under attack [as editor of The Canberra Times]. He allowed Witness to fail. He allowed Today Tonight to decline in quality. He has, over his career, displayed less commitment to quality journalism than either Kerry Packer, who kept the Channel Nine Sunday program and The Bulletin magazine alive through years of losses, or Rupert Murdoch with his love of newspapers. The West Australian, although a better paper than when Stokes took control, is no beacon of quality.”

But this weakness is also his strength. Stokes has largely been a non-interventionist proprietor and hasn’t used his outlets to push his political viewpoints. “He is a merchant, a cutter of deals and an exploiter of booms,” Simons writes. “He hires in the management and the editorial talent, and for the most part leaves them to do their job.”

Media types will be closely watching how much — if any — attention the commercial media gives the book in Stokes’ home state of Western Australia. Stokes’ company Seven West Media owns the Seven Network, which dominates the Perth market, and Perth’s only major daily newspaper, The West Australian. So far, so silent on that front.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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