For someone who had a hostile relationship with the press during his political career, Jeff Kennett is an unusual choice to join the board of a television and magazine company like Seven West Media.
After all, Four Corners spent a program in 1997 focusing on Kennett’s attacks on Seven’s Today Tonight program for daring to inquire into his share dealings.
With a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament, Kennett had enormous power in Victoria during the 1990s, and he played a brutal game of divide and conquer with the media.
After The 7.30 Report’s Greg Hoy asked about problem gambling at the announcement of Crown’s winning casino licence bid in 1993, Kennett banned all his ministers from appearing on the program, and he didn’t once appear during his seven years as premier.
It didn’t even seem to matter that the host of the state-based 7.30 Report for part of this period was Sarah Henderson, now a federal Liberal MP and then the daughter of one of Kennett’s state MPs.
Kennett also had more than a few run-ins with The Age, most famously during Bruce Guthrie’s editorship. And he wasn’t afraid to sue, reportedly pocketing a $400,000 defamation settlement from Kerry Packer’s Nine Network in the mid-1990s.
However, when The Australian decided to defend another later defamation action, rather than settle like Packer, Kennett ended up losing in court and then escaped a heavy legal bill when Lachlan Murdoch generously opted not to pursue the matter.
Should such a media critic and defamation litigant really be invited into a trophy media boardroom like Seven West?
The two have had favourable dealings before. Kennett famously “waved his magic wand” to give Stokes a very large tax deduction on this tax-effective HRL privatisation deal in 1994.
The other noteworthy element of the Kennett appointment is the continuing alignment of interests between James Packer, Kerry Stokes and Lachlan Murdoch.
Kennett is a well-paid Herald Sun columnist, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem for either Seven or News Corp, which seem to be more collaborators than competitors these days.
Indeed, when asked on Twitter if he’d be surrendering his Herald Sun column yesterday, Kennett declared that “Seven and Herald Sun great partners, building a better Vic and stronger Aus”.
James Packer and Stokes had a bitter falling out over the monster C7 litigation and the attacks launched on Packer by “those low-rent slugs at Today Tonight”, as Mariah Carey’s boy famously described the now-defunct program at Sam Chisholm’s 70th birthday party in 2009.
However, ever since Stokes raided and then was allowed into the boardroom at Packer’s Consolidated Media Holdings (now part of News Corp), the two have become quite friendly.
When Lachlan Murdoch poached James Warburton from Seven to be CEO of Ten, Packer immediately resigned from the Ten board to distance himself from the decision and escape the wrath of Stokes.
Similarly, Packer was perfectly happy to let one of his longest-serving lieutenants, John Alexander, join the Seven West Media board last year.
And when Nine CEO David Gyngell gave Packer a black eye last year, it was Kerry Stokes who had lunch with Packer at his office the following day.
Kennett also comes to Stokes with the seal of approval from Packer, who lobbied hard for Kennett to be appointed chairman of casino company Echo Entertainment, before his alternative Barangaroo play materialised.
For someone who is now 67, Kennett has taken on a heavy workload and is believed to be pocketing more than $1 million a year.
His responsibilities include:
- Chairman, Beyondblue
- Chairman, Primary Opinion (listed)
- Chairman, Open Windows Australia
- Chairman, CT Management (infrastructure provider to local government)
- Chairman, Amtek (gaming)
- Chairman, The Torch (for incarcerated indigenous Australians)
- Chairman, LEDified Lighting Corp
- Director, Equity Trustees
- Director, Seven West Media
Throw in some paid speeches, a weekly column for the Herald Sun and a paid role commentating at Seven, and it is hard to see how the former army officer has also had time to send more than 4000 tweets.
The Kennett record at public companies is not one to write home about. Sofcom and National Telecom Group were his first listed boards, and both flopped.
Data and Commerce was the much-hyped radio play through 3AK, but this also tanked, and Kennett quit before he’d made much progress on the ratings.
More recently, there was a reasonable seven years on the Equity Trustees board, but Primary Opinion has tanked and is wallowing at 2 cents, and even Jumbuck Entertainment surrendered its early promise and finished up doing a 2014 share consolidation to boost its nominal price.
All up, the score board doesn’t suggest life is going to get any better for the long-suffering shareholders in Seven West Media, who have had a dreadful run, riding on the coat-tails of Kerry Stokes.