Yes, sir. No, sir. Three bags full, sir.
Such is the life of a gofer to the rich and powerful. Or so it is in the case of John Alexander, loyal servant to the Packer family.
The Crown casino inquiry tabled in NSW parliament last week reserved a special place for the Packer acolyte — 5000 words is a lot to devote to parsing someone’s faults, although it does make lively reading on the subject of governance.
The one-time Fairfax editor-in-chief will have been more than a little apprehensive to see the report refer to him as “John Henry Alexander”, adopting the legalistic style used in courtroom sentencing. It was a long way from JA, the matey corporate moniker he’s better known by. And even further from the lower case “ja” of his cosy email sign-offs to James (as in “warmest, ja”).
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John Henry Alexander, the decades-long chief executive who served Kerry Packer and then son, James, was toady to both. Or as inquiry commissioner Patricia Bergin SC put it: “Whatever the late Mr Kerry Packer and then Mr James Packer wanted was what was done. Any assumption that it was all for the best proved to be unjustified.”
This level of blind loyalty, she wrote, meant: “Mr Alexander’s stewardship led Crown to disastrous consequences.”
The nub of Bergin’s finding is that Alexander, by whatever name, crossed the line because of his fawning relationship with the Packer gang — a blurring of roles between CEO and personal factotum.
It’s perhaps perfectly understandable when you consider the loot being shovelled Alexander’s way — more than a one-time newspaper cadet could ever have dreamed of.
The television veteran Peter Meakin once said of the small in stature Alexander: “He looked like he’d spent the first half of his life on a charm bracelet.” And what, really, is the glue that binds a grey and calculating 69-year-old business operative to a booze-bloated 53-year-old billionaire adrift on the high seas with Mariah Carey amid a string of bikini model girlfriends?
How the matey have fallen.
In the pantheon of the high-powered gofer, the Alexander story is a cautionary tale.
The gofer role brings with it a series of conflicting demands. As gatekeeper, the gofer controls information to and from the boss. The gofer is part facilitator of the boss’s wishes and part blocker to stop over-the-top demands. There’s the diplomacy and guile needed to make the boss believe he or she really is in control. It’s about power — how you use it and who you manipulate.
The Packer universe has always been built on a bully culture, with the example set from the top. It means that to survive the Packer gofer must be both bullied and bully.
The former Nixon White House aide John Dean has observed that the new authoritarianism infecting US politics works by having characters who are prepared to offer complete obedience to authority and then to enforce complete obedience on those lower in the chain. Followers themselves must be authoritarians. Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was said to be the embodiment of this dual characteristic.
What of other Australian business figures?
The Sydney corporate operator-cum-fixer Bruce McWilliam has made a fortune in the decades-long service of media moguls. For the past 18 years he has acted as adviser and commercial director to Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes.
McWilliam is a habitue of Sydney’s salubrious eastern suburbs and a collector of fine wines and fine houses. The title of “consigliere” has been bestowed on him — and for good reason.
“Bruce is paid to make problems go away,” a former Seven executive said in a Good Weekend feature. “He’s like Mr Wolfe in Pulp Fiction — that calm, dapper guy who gets rid of the dead body from the back of the car and hoses it out.”
The Murdoch family has had its share of loyal retainers who have found their fortune standing one pace back from the boss. Ken Cowley was a director of News Corp for 32 years and ran the Australian arm of the company for 27 years.
When it was time to move on, “KC” as he was known, was feted with a lavish bash on Hayman Island with 300 top drawer guests and entertainment supplied by John Farnham and jazz musician Don Burrows. And he walked off with an Arthur Boyd original.
But fate was not so kind to Murdoch’s longest-serving lieutenant, Les Hinton. Hinton stuck with Murdoch for more than 50 years after starting at Adelaide’s The Advertiser in 1959, but he was forced to take the fall when the News of the World phone hacking inquiry engulfed the Murdochs’ UK operations in 2011.
It was the ultimate price to save a Murdoch scalp, in this case son James. Hinton later gave an insight into the challenges of being the gofer, writing of Murdoch that: “As a boss, he can be hands-off or autocratic, charming or irascible, forgiving or fierce, and sometimes just a comprehensive pain.”
Perhaps the worst was the treatment meted out to Peter Beckwith, loyal servant to the late Alan Bond. As Bond sank under a mire of debt and civil and criminal action, he looked to scapegoat Beckwith claiming he had given too much responsibility to his one-time managing director. Beckwith’s wife called Bond’s comments “despicable”. Understandable really. Bond laid in the boot after Beckwith was dead, having endured the slow agony of a brain tumour.
But that’s Alan Bond for you: a lesson that money can buy a lot of things, but never class.