The reaction of the Sydney elite to the sensational Crown inquiry is the most disingenuous since Captain Renault stood in the centre of the casino in Casablanca and claimed he was “shocked — shocked — to find that gambling is going on in here”.
For years the city’s powerbrokers have ignored or even enabled the Packers’ misbehaviour. What is new is that everyone is getting to see how business is done behind the scenes in the billionaire family.
Although we’ve had plenty of hints over the years from books, TV series and even a play, when it comes to the Packers the reality is always far more dramatic — and ugly.
Indeed the inquiry is finally exposing the stark reality of how politicians have cowered before them at great cost to taxpayers; how craven directors put loyalty to Packer ahead of their duty to ordinary shareholders.
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James Packer might be blaming his relatively recent bipolar diagnosis for his “shameful and disgraceful” behaviour in 2015 but the fact is he has been a bully for years.
So was his father, and his father before him. But that is no excuse.
The inquiry’s revelations about James Packer’s private intimidation of respected businessman Ben Gray comes after some very public confrontations over the years. They include the nasty spat with former Nine boss David Leckie at an Opera House lunch in 2009 and the physical brawl with his former bestie David Gyngell on the streets of Bondi in 2014. That one was even conveniently captured on camera and splashed across front pages.
The idea that bullying is genetic in this family was raised at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre last year in the play Packer and Sons, where James almost emerged as a victim. But then the play only got to 2001.
There have been numerous books over the years detailing the family’s brutal business tactics, including three definitive tomes by Paul Barry, of which two are about James.
But there are also plenty of business journos who seem to have been charmed by him.
There was the 2014 book Killing Fairfax by AFR journalist Pamela Williams crediting James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch for helping destroy her then-employer. So laudatory was she of their previously unheralded media genius that the pair were triumphant guests at the book launch.
Unfortunately there was never a sequel called “Killing Ten” about their role in the near-demise of the Ten Network, which happened soon afterwards. (At the time I dubbed that debacle “TenTel” in honour of their legendary OneTel disaster in 2001 when they blew up a billion dollars of their daddies’ money.)
More recently there was The Price of Fortune: The untold story of being James Packer by The Australian’s sympathetic writer Damon Kitney, which was very much from Packer’s tortured perspective at the time, missing many of the juicy bits which have since emerged.
Like many journalists before him, Kitney was brought into the court of Packer for the interviews where King James turned on the charm, which the family can muster when absolutely necessary.
It should be remembered that former Crown chairman John Alexander’s flirtations with the Packers began back in the mid ’90s when he was still an editor at Fairfax and holidaying on their boat.
The Packers’ floating gin palace is still popular with journos apparently. A recent controversial article by The Sydney Morning Herald’s Andrew Hornery detailed how fellow gossip columnist Joe Aston of The Australian Financial Review is a regular guest and cavorter on the yacht.
Presumably the current Bergin inquiry will make for more popular culture fodder after the proper reporting is finished.