Orica boss Ian Smith last year became the first ASX 50 CEO to depart with aggressive and bullying behaviour towards underlings being openly cited as the reason. Foul-mouthed Geelong mayor Darryn Lyons has suffered a similar fate, bringing down the whole council with him after this explosive report was tabled in Victorian Parliament yesterday. And now Clive Palmer is another one who has hit trouble, with Four Corners laying in the boot on Monday night and News Corp continuing its frenzied two-year campaign against the fallen billionaire.
Cultural issues are also being mentioned regularly during the debate about regulation of financial services. Former Commonwealth Bank CEO David Murray likened ASIC’s attempts to change bank culture to Hitler’s Germany, before later apologising.
The media has an important role to play when it comes to influencing cultural issues in Australia, but historically the media has also been a happy hunting ground for dictatorial bullies. Look no further than News Corp and Rupert Murdoch himself.
The Packer family have long been known for their aggressive approach to life and business, and Seven proprietor Kerry Stokes can be just as tough and threatening, especially when it comes to calling in the lawyers. And when it comes to litigation, we all know that journalists themselves have a long history of initiating defamation actions.
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Watching two powerful blowhards go head to head can be an interesting blood sport, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen since with “Clive Palmer versus Rupert Murdoch”.
When Palmer was the largest donor to the LNP and fighting Kevin Rudd’s resources super profits tax he received no negative attention from News Corp, but that all changed when he took on Tony Abbott. War was declared following his unhinged “Wendy Deng was a Chinese spy” interview on Nine’s Today show back in September 2013.
There’s no doubt that Palmer can be extremely loose with the truth, but as a private businessman his business dealings haven’t warranted the forests of coverage in The Australian, most notably by Hedley Thomas.
And having spent $30 million securing a big say over the fortunes of the Abbott government in the Senate, it was legitimate for his political views to be tested on the ABC, even if Tony Jones was a little soft from time to time.
When you read the combined efforts of Chris Kenny and Hedley Thomas in The Australian today, they basically say: “How dare anyone ever give anything but hostile coverage to Clive Palmer, and we’ve been telling you how bad he is for years, but no one listened.”
In March 2013, Ray Martin produced perhaps the most gushing mainstream media piece on Palmer for 60 Minutes. This does look embarrassing in hindsight, particularly when considering yesterday’s liquidators’ report into the collapse of Queensland Nickel (QNI).
Martin does know how to stick the boot in, as evidenced by this swashbuckling 60 Minutes piece he did on Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking in 2011.
If you look at the history of Queensland Nickel, BHP also has a lot to answer for yet gets none of the attention it deserves from Hedley Thomas and News Corp. This July 2009 BHP press release from when it sold QNI to “Professor Palmer” is an absolute cracker.
The Big Australian was walking away, threatening to close the smelter. Instead, then-chairman Don Argus, who gets an uncritical run in The Australian, thought Palmer was the go-to man for BHP to avoid the huge entitlements and environmental clean-up associated with the smelter.
BHP would never have been lumbered with this lemon if it hadn’t done the stupid 2001 merger with Billiton, which has cost Australian shareholders tens of billions of dollars, as Alan Kohler pointed out in this memorable 2006 column.
The Argus-led BHP board then pursued a foolish $600 million expansion of the nickel smelter in 2004, but that was all written off as part of the “Professor Palmer deal” in 2009, shortly before the nickel price took off again.
Sure, the liquidators’ report unveiled Palmer’s chaotic management style and endless related-party transactions, but when you own 100% of a company, the money can flow pretty freely.
Palmer wasn’t to know the nickel price would plunge from US$9 a pound in June 2014 to less than US$4 a tonne today. That’s life in the commodities business.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Palmer did extend the life of the smelter for seven years when BHP wanted to close it down, and he also showered $10 million worth of holidays, free cars and parties on the employees during the good times in 2010 that followed BHP’s ill-timed exit.
So why isn’t Hedley Thomas getting stuck into BHP? This might have something to do with the fact that BHP Billiton’s current chairman, Jac Nasser, is one of Rupert Murdoch’s hand-picked directors of 21st Century Fox.