The Packer family was a dominant force in the Sydney media landscape for a century. The family originated in Hobart and became prominent in musical circles and the civil service. Robert Clyde Packer (1879–1934) worked on the Tasmanian News from 1900 to 1902, when ambition propelled him to the mainland. After marrying Irish-born Ethel Maude Hewson, Packer reported for the Dubbo Liberal and the Townsville Daily Bulletin. He joined the Sydney Sunday Times in 1908, becoming editor, as well as chief scoutmaster of New South Wales.
In 1919, he moved from the editorship of the Sunday Sun to manage a newspaper launched by the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Sir James Joynton Smith. When Smith’s Weekly turned a profit in 1921, Smith gave Packer and the editor, Claude McKay, each a one-third share in the company, laying the foundation stone of the Packer empire.
The trio launched the Daily Guardian in 1923, which Packer helped to publicise by launching the first Miss Australia quest in 1926. A keen observer of overseas newspapers, he paid top salaries but drove his staff (as well as himself) hard; he balanced a sharp news sense with an eye for populist stunts. His son, (Douglas) Frank Hewson Packer (1906–74), was a founding ‘cadet reporter and photographer’ on the Guardian, but struggled with written expression and was to prove more adept as advertising manager of Smith’s Newspapers Ltd.
In 1930, Sir Hugh Denison’s rapacious Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL) controversially purchased the Daily and Sunday Guardians in return for an agreement not to publish a newspaper for 21 years. In 1931, R.C. Packer joined the company as managing editor to protect the shares he and his son held in ANL.
Tired and ill, Packer failed in a bid to install his son at ANL in 1932. Later that year, Frank Packer and a former Labor politician, E.G. Theodore, threatened to publish an afternoon newspaper, forming a new company, Sydney Newspapers Ltd. R.C. Packer authorised ANL to pay £86,500 to the pair not to publish an afternoon paper for three years. The extraordinary manoeuvre preserved the Sydney monopoly of the Sun, the jewel in ANL’s crown, but provided Sydney Newspapers with the capital to launch the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933.
R.C. Packer died in 1934, with his estate valued at £54,307. That year, Frank married Gretel Bullmore; they were to have two sons, (Robert) Clyde (1935–2001) and Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer (1937–2005). The family moved to ‘Cairnton’ in Bellevue Hill, not far from the Fairfax family in Sydney’s exclusive eastern suburbs. Frank’s blatant exploitation of ANL, his robust business style and his public brawl with Ezra Norton in 1939 brought him considerable notoriety.
Sydney Newspapers went into partnership with ANL, forming Consolidated Press Ltd to take over the Women’s Weekly and to re-launch the morning Daily Telegraph in 1936. Packer became managing director.
During the war, he enlisted in the AIF as a lieutenant, and worked at the Allied Works Council alongside Theodore, serving as an at times unpopular director of personnel.
The Theodore family sold its shares to Packer in 1957, the year Australian Consolidated Press (ACP) was formed. Packer’s achievements were largely due to two exceptional mentors (R.C. Packer and Theodore), financial cunning, bravado, prodigious energy and an ability to identify and nurture the talents of others. During the Cold War, his papers turned increasingly to the right.
Knighted in 1959, Packer spearheaded two spectacular but unsuccessful challenges for the America’s Cup in 1962 and 1970. He was drawn to other venerable institutions, buying the Bulletin in 1960, but failing to acquire Angus & Robertson.
Clyde, who was not allowed to go to university, began his career as a Telegraph journalist and sub-editor, and became general manager of ACP in 1965, as well as chairman and managing director of TCN9 in 1970. He also served (1964–77) as a Liberal member of the NSW Legislative Council. His less intellectual brother, Kerry, became advertising manager of ACP in 1965, echoing something of his father’s trajectory, and deputy chairman and assistant managing director of Consolidated Press Holdings (CPH) in 1967. In 1972, Clyde and Kerry persuaded Sir Frank to sell to News Limited the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, which had never been able to arrest the Sydney Morning Herald’s stranglehold on classified advertising, and which needed an afternoon stablemate to utilise idle printing capacity.
Later that year, Clyde resigned his positions in protest at an attempted act of censorship by Sir Frank and went on to launch an adult sex magazine, Forum; at the same time, Kerry had his first real taste of success at ACP with Cleo, under the editorship of Ita Buttrose. Following Sir Frank’s death in 1974, his estate was sworn for probate at $1.3 million; tax-minimisation schemes meant that the assets under his control were worth much more. In 1977, Clyde moved to the United States, where he died in 2001.
Kerry succeeded his father as chairman of ACP. He and his wife, Roslyn, had two children, Gretel (1966– ) and James Douglas Packer (1968– ). Kerry launched World Series Cricket in 1976–77, shocking the international cricket establishment and transforming the game. In 1987, he was cleared of allegations aired at a Royal Commission headed by Frank Costigan that he was involved in organised crime and tax evasion.
Passionate about television, Kerry was less editorially interventionist than Sir Frank. In 1987–90, with the sale and then repurchase of the Nine Network, he made a fortune at the expense of disgraced tycoon Alan Bond. Packer was a gambler, but he never risked the lot, and he always looked to get the borrowings of a business down. Although media ownership rules prevented him from gaining control of his family’s old foe, John Fairfax Holdings, his bombastic performance before a parliamentary inquiry in 1991 attracted considerable attention.
James Packer served as CEO of Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL) from 1996 and executive chairman from 1998. However, his father found it difficult to hand over the reins of the group, despite terrible health, after James’ championing of telecommunications company One.Tel went disastrously wrong in 2001–02. After Kerry—Australia’s richest man—died in 2005, James became executive chairman of CPH. More interested in gaming than in the media, he swiftly sold off 75 per cent of PBL to a private equity firm in 2006–07. He concentrated his energies on Crown Limited, owner of Crown Casino in Melbourne and casino interests in Asia, and by 2014 appeared to have lobbied successfully to redevelop the Barangaroo site on Sydney’s Darling Harbour, with a $2 billion iconic building and Sydney’s second casino. He announced that his sister Gretel would, in return, be heavily involved in administering a $60 million arts fund for Sydney.
REFs: P. Barry, The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer Uncut (2006) and Who Wants to be a Billionaire? (2009); B. Griffen-Foley, Sir Frank Packer (2014).