The two most powerful remaining billionaire media moguls in the Australian market, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes, don’t say much in public these days but this year both have declared their opposition to a world that has gone too “woke”.
In the case of Stokes, it happened yesterday when he appeared on his own Seven Network to celebrate the life of the late David Leckie and declared:
He was a rock star. No, we won’t see anything like him again. We are too woke today. No company would have the sort of flamboyance that David brought.
This declaration, of course, came just two days after Stokes, who is personally spending millions funding defamation action brought by former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith against several newspapers, was forced to drop notorious UK racist Katie Hopkins from Seven’s latest iteration of Big Brother.
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The Stokes media empire doesn’t overtly campaign against all things woke like News Corp and Fox do. If any Murdoch minions were unsure where their boss sat on this question, they only had to watch the brief video he released when receiving an Australia Day award in January.
“Too many people have fought too hard in too many places for freedom of speech to be suppressed by this awful woke orthodoxy,” Murdoch declared, paving the way for ongoing attacks on minorities by his army of aggressive old white men such as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones.
In the spirit of resisting a woke straightjacket, perhaps we should embrace some straight talking about David Leckie, rather than being all politically correct and polite.
Seven’s commercial director Bruce McWilliam, a longtime member of the Sydney media boys club, took a break from the Ben Roberts-Smith war against Nine to yesterday pen a glowing 2000-word Leckie tribute for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Reading between the lines, you can tell even his friends regarded Leckie as an extremely rude and blunt man at times. Indeed, he was arguably one of the worst bullies corporate Australia has produced, although Leckie was clearly popular among journalists and the tributes did come from the likes of Laurie Oakes and Janine Perrett yesterday.
Leckie’s tolerance for debate at Seven’s AGMs was very low. He could be so dismissive and embarrassing in public that Stokes rarely let him even speak to the meeting.
He was also good for a laugh. On one occasion, as the AGM questions continued, Leckie started interrupting and sledging from the top table, making comments like: “Who does this bloke think he is? Does he want his own show?”
When you’ve spent a combined 20 years as CEO of Australia’s two biggest and most successful commercial television stations, you would expect both networks to give your passing a pretty big send-off.
Seven pulled out all stops yesterday, with glowing tributes from David Koch, Andrew Demetriou, current CEO James Warburton and Stokes in a package that ran for four and half minutes.
While Nine’s 6pm Victorian bulletin didn’t cover it, this two-minute package appeared on Nine’s Sydney bulletin.
When Stokes appointed Leckie in April 2003, Seven had already been hoovering up talent from Nine after Leckie was sacked 15 months earlier, in January 2002, following an 11-year run in the top job that started when he was only 38.
It was Kerry Packer who ordered the hit on Leckie as John Alexander, now a Seven West Media director, was put in charge of PBL Media. Nine’s announcement relegated the sacking of Leckie to the last two paragraphs of the ASX release, galvanising his burning desire for revenge against the Packers.
Stokes seemed genuinely warm when talking about Leckie yesterday and the financial scoreboard explains why.
Since taking control of Seven in 1994, Stokes had burnt through a succession of CEOs (Bob Campbell, Gary Rice, Julian Mounter and Maureen Plavsic) before finally settling on Leckie as the man who could take Seven to number one.
Leckie came through with the goods, eventually delivering Stokes his biggest ever payday when 50% of Seven’s media assets were sold into a joint venture with private equity firm KKR in November 2006. This deal delivered $3.2 billion of cash to the public company now trading as Seven Group Holdings.
KKR only signed up to this arrangement after it locked in Leckie as the long-term CEO of what was known as Seven Media Group, a position he held until June 2012 once the $4.1 billion sale of SMG to WA News to create Seven West Media had been bedded down.
Leckie himself almost got into financial strife during the GFC after he borrowed heavily from Macquarie Bank to spend a whopping $17 million exercising 3 million Seven Group options at an average price of $5.66.
As Adam Schwab explained in 2009, he was forced to sell by Macquarie but managed to exit through put options, pocketing a tasty $26.8 million which paid out the Macquarie debt and left plenty of change for the farm near Bowral, which he retired to.
While it was nice to make a $10 million profit on his options, with shares in Seven Group Holdings today at $22, his estate could have been worth $50 million if only Macquarie hadn’t effectively sold him up after the GFC, an issue that was discussed quite frankly at the 2009 Seven Group AGM.