Bridget Griffen-Foley, Sir Frank Packer The Young Master. A Biography , Harper Collins, 2000, $45, ISBN 0 7322 6422 7
Reviewed by Dennis Cryle, University of Central Queensland
The significance of a Packer biography, be it historical or more contemporary in focus, lies in the fresh insights it may provide on a remarkable dynasty, from the career of Robert Clyde who helped to establish Smith's Weekly and the Guardians after World War One to the present day manoeuvrings and politics of Kerry and Jamie Packer. Not since 1971, when a Packer employee attempted the task, has anything substantial appeared on Sir Frank; so a fresh attempt with the advantage of hindsight is well overdue. In her new biography of Sir Frank Packer, Bridget Griffen-Foley helps to explain the emergence of a 'house style' and a family business approach which is at once brash, forceful, feudal towards employees and shrewd to the point of unscrupulousness with rivals.
Rather than provide mere snapshots and anecdotes, Griffen-Foley offers a detailed explanation of the Packer family fortunes over time. She does not neglect the foundation years of the Packer dynasty; she carefully documents R.C. Packer's outgunning of Associated Newspapers and his feuds with New South Wales Premier, J.T.Lang, outlining in the process the competitive Sydney newspaper scene into which Frank was initiated by his workaholic father. This prelude is as complex as it is volatile, but the author demonstrates a sound grasp of the political and business developments which contribute to the family's subsequent wealth and influence. Not least in importance is the role R.C. Packer and son play in presiding in the dismantling Sydney's ailing labour press, in association that enigmatic labor capitalist E.G.Theodore. The foundation with Warnecke's assistance of the Australian Women's Weekly marks an important moment in the commercialisation of the Sydney press and of Australian media more generally. In this respect, as with later episodes, Sir Frank Packer. The Young Master is not simply a valuable contribution to media history but to national history as well.
Amid the relentless acquisitions and recrimination which characterise Frank Packer's career, in his early as well as his later years, Griffen-Foley provides the reader with insights into the changing status of the Packer family. Gretel Bulmore, Frank's first and longest surviving partner is profiled for her social contribution in helping to move the Packers from the edge of Sydney society as 'new rich' towards their later established place of intimacy and acceptance (if at times grudging) as confidents of Prime Ministers and the business establishment.
This portrait of the upbringing of the 'Young Master' confirms his role as a parvenu who relies on a combination of raw energy, intimidation and cunning to achieve and maintain financial advantage. His is not intellectual so much as a physical growth, based on family leisure pursuits like boxing, gambling, racing and sailing. Frank Packer's war-time years as an army officer confirm less endearing yet enduring personality traits, in particular a sensitivity to criticism, especially from the unions and the Labor Party, as well as an uneasiness with organisational constraints, and a general liking for having his own way. His biographer demonstrates repeatedly how this brashness often offended, creating as many problems as it solved. With fluency and impressive research, Griffen-Foley proceeds historically from one situation to the next, illustrating in the process how the strengths of her subject became failings at different points in a turbulent life.
Packer's peculiar combination of ruthlessness and largesse extended beyond immediate family to associates and employees who laboured in what were often sub-standard and unhealthy working conditions.The dismissal of Donald Horne from the Daily Telegraph, only to be reinstated next morning, along with other celebrated proprietorial antics, reveal something about the Boss and his employees' attitudes towards him, not least the tendency of 'Packer the Sacker' to inflame what were often tense industrial situations with the Sydney unions. The sustained discussion of industrial relations is yet another valuable aspect of the new biography in a field which often overlooks journalists and employees in favour of the rich and powerful.
Equally important for understanding the emergence of current media structures are the insights which Griffen-Foley provides into the territorial battles and tensions between Packer and his Sydney rivals, extending to litigation in the case of Henderson and Fairfax, and to physical clashes at the races in the case of Norton.
No less important are his dealings with Keith Murdoch with whom Packer engages in a long game of cat and mouse in relation to his plans to enter the Melbourne market, and subsequently, with Rupert who enters the Sydney market with the purchase of the Mirror and suburban titles. The decision of Murdoch senior and other proprietors to let Packer into positions of influence in the Newspapers Proprietors' Association was grudging acknowledgement of his business acumen, grounded in the pragmatic perception that he could be more successfully contained when working among them rather than from the outer.
In recounting the ups and downs of a career which was rarely dull and often audacious, the biography ranges widely across Packer's numerous publishing and magazine schemes, some of them failures, before incorporating his entry into television and acquisition of what was to become the Nine Network. The study culminates with his knighthood and activity as a Liberal Party power broker, from the period of Robert Gordon Menzies to the instability of Billy MacMahon. Additionally, the America Cup challenges which form the basis of several chapters provide an interesting diversion and depict Frank Packer competing, albeit with limited success, on the international stage with a decided capacity to galvanise strong Australian backing.
In painting a broad canvass, Griffen-Foley sets a high standard for Australia's growing band of media historians, especially in view of her difficulties in accessing the Company's files. She has nevertheless researched both primary collections and secondary source scrupulously without letting the weight of her erudition interfere with the flow of the narrative.The results are generally superior to most previous writing on the Packers, not least, because the author is able to exercise detachment and provide a more critical perspective on a media magnate who, in his lifetime, remained contemptuous of criticism. Perhaps one of the few disappointing aspects of the book are the photos which reflect the technology of the times. By contrast, the cover reproductions of leading Packer publications are an excellent entrée.
This critical edge in Griffin-Foley's writing becomes more apparent as the biography progresses to the point that one develops the impression the author is tiring of her overbearing subject. The constant conflict in which Packer surrounds himself and his apparent inability to adopt other methods, apart from strong arm ones, can be depressing in their predictability, were they not redeemed by flashes of humour and the personal generosity which enliven a long and fascinating career. It is to the author's credit that this human dimension, while not ultimately redeeming, remains a significant under current throughout her very long and impressive account .
Denis Cryle is Associate Professor of Media and Communications at Central Queensland University