Many commentators say the current spate of Don Burke stories result from the “blokey” toxic culture at Nine — and there is a great deal of truth in that. It was a meritocracy, the most competitive place I have worked, but it was also male driven — from the lunching, sport, and long hours, to the carousing at the bar upstairs at Nine’s HQ at Willoughby, especially on Friday nights. Women found it hard to rise to the top except in publicity and in some sales areas where they became powerful team leaders. That’s why a number of talented female producers left Nine and went elsewhere.
But the current round of stories are missing quite a few names at Nine, starting with the Park Street HQ of the network’s owners, Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL) and the Packer family’s Consolidated Press. That’s where all power resided, not with David Leckie and Sam Chisholm. It was OK for them to make decisions about the lowly and the unknown or the minor star, but for network revenue and profit-makers like Don Burke, his TV program and magazine, Park Street would be the ultimate decision-maker. The Australian’s report this week that the late Kerry Packer rang Don Burke and told him to “behave” missed the point. Should Packer really have said “behave our you are fired” or just, “you are fired” and ordered an inquiry? Nothing like that happened: if you have to single anyone out for enabling poor behaviour, it is Kerry Packer.
Most of Burke’s time at Nine was when the Packers were owners or major shareholders — that’s where Kerry and son James ruled the roost. Sam Chisholm reported to Kerry Packer. David Leckie did as well (with son James increasingly powerful from the late 1990s onwards, along with John Alexander). James Packer pushed Leckie out via John Alexander, who was also responsible for the departure from Nine of Peter Meakin. Meakin famously described Alexander (now on the board of Seven West Media, another floundering giant) as a “24 carat cunt”.
But all the stories about Don Burke and who should have been responsible for “doing something about his behaviour” have ignored one very important fact: the Packers didn’t own Nine for the whole time Burke was on air. Remember Bond Media? In December 1987, Kerry Packer sold the rights of TCN-9 and GTV-9 to Bond Media for $1.05 billion ($800 million in cash and $200 million in subordinated debt). In July 1990, Packer reacquired Nine Network, which by then included the Nine station in Brisbane that Bond had owned. The late Bond executive Warren Jones was chairman of Bond Media. Nine started Burke’s Backyard in late 1987, the year that Kerry packer sold the channels. Bond Media was responsible for Burke’s Backyard until Packer repurchased it in mid 1990.
John Alexander was “head of media” at PBL which made him head of Nine from 2002 to 2004 and became CEO of PBL. But he also ran Cons Press magazines, which published among others, Burke’s Backyard magazine which was killed by Bauer in 2013. It was selling 42,000 then, down from 122,000 when the TV program ended in 2004. Could it be if Burke had been axed when the alleged abuses took place, then Burke’s Backyard magazine would have had to go leaving an unwanted hole in Alexander’s magazine line-up?
Any woman complaining about Don Burke not only had to face the fact that Burke was a rating and financial hit for Nine, but important to another businesses, like the magazines. To try and press their claims against Burke, they would have had to pressure David Leckie, or Sam Chisholm, Peter Meakin and others at Nine, then pressure John Alexander and Kerry Packer at Park Street (not to mention Nick Falloon as CFO), and increasingly James Packer.