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Boris Bites Packer

How I accidentally thwarted Sir Frank and discovered Madame Blavatsky

The ABC production Paper Giants, about Ita Buttrose, Frank and Kerry Packer and the founding of Cleo magazine in November 1972, was an entertaining mini-series even though it glossed over crucial issues and romanticised Cleo as being at the centre of the feminist avant-garde. It did, however, bring back memories of my accidental role in disrupting Sir Frank Packer’s plans to open the first private cable television stations in Australia. This is not a story of being humiliated by the Packers, like others have recounted, because our paths never physically crossed. Yet in an era of print media crisis and political divisions over the National Broadband Network, understanding why Frank Packer wanted a cable network as early as in 1969 is a tale with many contemporary resonances.

A majority of readers would certainly remember the giant physical, commercial and political presence of Kerry Packer. They may, however, have been too young or not yet born when his father Frank (known and feared as ‘God’) exercised his media and political power in the decades before his death in 1974.

Between the Depression of the 1930s and the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, Australian print and electronic media were subjected to a lengthy process of monopoly concentration in the hands of the Fairfax, Murdoch and Packer stables. Before the rise of the media barons, various businesses and organisations such as trade unions and state Labor Councils also owned newspapers, magazines and radio stations. Most were run as commercial entertainment, sports and news media but were eventually sold to the large private companies. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) owned the World, a struggling newspaper in Sydney. In 1931 the AWU sent their former Queensland president ‘Red Ted’ Theodore to report on the paper’s prospects. Immortalised as ‘Red Ted Thurgood’ in Frank Hardy’s novel Power Without Glory, Theodore had recently been forced to resign in 1930 as Federal Labor Treasurer in Scullin’s Labor government following corruption allegations involving his part ownership of the Mungana mine.

Theodore’s media and gold mine connections with John Wren and Frank Packer were ‘consolidated’ in subsequent years. Together with Frank Packer, he purchased the World from the AWU in 1932 and they went on to found the Australian Women’s Weekly (1933) as well as adding the Daily Telegraph (1936) and Sunday Telegraph (1939) to their new company called Consolidated Press Ltd.

Although Theodore died in 1950, the Theodore family interests continued in partnership with ‘God’. Television now beckoned and it was Packer’s television station (TCN9 Sydney) that was the first to officially broadcast in Australia on 27 October 1956. Shortly after, in 1957, Frank Packer renamed the company Australian Consolidated Press (ACP) after buying out the Theodore family interests and gaining majority control of the company. Always on the lookout for new money making media vehicles that would beat his corporate media rivals, Packer took a controlling stake in GTV9 Melbourne in 1960. With the opening of the Sydney–Melbourne coaxial cable in 1963, ‘God’ launched the Nine Network which remained the dominant TV business long after his death and up until the death of his son Kerry in 2005.

Sir Frank Packer’s increasing media power was also vital for the Menzies Coalition government and conservative anti-Labor politics. It is legitimate to ask whether Tony Abbott could have become leader of the Liberal party without Packer’s earlier contributions to preventing Labor from winning office. It would, for example, have been impossibly expensive for Bob Santamaria and the National Civic Council to pay commercial television rates if Santamaria had not been given a free weekly show on the Nine Network. ‘God’ was thus instrumental in helping to ensure that a whole generation of right-wing Catholic voters made the transition from Labor to the Liberal Party via the Democratic Labor Party. Once well known as a non-Catholic and even anti-Catholic party, the Liberal Party today is packed with Catholic politicians and directly attracts the votes of many conservative Catholics.

Just as the Packer stable bolstered conservative political and social causes, so too were Fairfax media outlets equally anti-Labor, as was the Melbourne Herald and Weekly Times empire (not yet controlled by Rupert Murdoch). It was the rise of Rupert that posed an increasing threat to Frank. In the suffocating Australian conservative climate, the launch of The Australian in 1964 was a breath of fresh air. While Packer was a strong Menzies supporter, Murdoch’s Australian criticised everything from Menzies’ state aid for Catholic schools to neglectful socio-economic policies, conservative cultural attitudes and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. After Robert Menzies retired in 1966, The Australian dismissed his government’s record as ‘17 Wasted Years’. It is hard to reconcile the younger reformist Murdoch with News Limited’s aggressive right-wing papers that have dominated the Australian media since Rupert changed his political views during the 1970s.

How does my experience intersect with this narrative? My first media job was in 1960 as a fourteen-year-old copy boy in the sub-editors’ office at the Herald and Weekly Times fortress in Flinders Street, Melbourne. Apart from witnessing the almost daily antics of the subs—throwing paper planes at each other for instance—my brief stay was notable for two events. The first was tripping and breaking a fine china cup while clearing away managing director Sir John Williams’ morning tea tray. The fact that Sir John was another knight of the realm indicates that in those days nearly all the media barons were made knights for services rendered in defence of the status quo.

The second event was more fortuitous. I entered a footy tipping contest run by radio 3DB (which operated downstairs in the Herald building) that required entrants to name not only the winners of the main matches but also all the winners in the reserves. Confirming my belief that sporting bets have little to do with expert knowledge, I fluked the jackpot that had not been won for three weeks. Winning the Phoenix Biscuits football jackpot of seventy-five pounds was a relative fortune given that I was on a weekly wage of four pounds, seventeen shillings and sixpence.

After leaving the Herald I worked for almost six years in a range of factories, department stores and offices while attending night school for five years in order to finish high school. After enrolling full-time at Monash University in 1966 and completing a combined honours arts degree in history and politics in November 1969, I awaited news as to whether I would get an academic job or a post-graduate scholarship. I was told that I would probably get a post-graduate scholarship and part-time tutoring at Monash beginning in March 1970. In the meantime, and given this was a period of full employment, I took the path taken by thousands of others: I joined the public service.

At the time, the Commonwealth Public Service was eager to recruit honours graduates. As I had a good honours degree, I didn’t have to pass elaborate qualifying public service exams. Instead the officer in charge offered me a choice of jobs in several departments. I was not inspired. Sensing my lack of enthusiasm, he came back with another option— a job in the Postmaster General’s Department. ‘Not the PMG’, I moaned. ‘No, this is a special job’, he assured me. ‘You will be the first “humanist” working on projects with our leading team of engineers and telecommunication planners,’ This sounded more appealing and so, just before my 24th birthday, I began work in December 1969 at the PMG offices in William Street.

There were virtually no other institutions in the world like the PMG, except geographically small-scale versions in the United Kingdom or New Zealand. As a large government department, the PMG employed hundreds of thousands of workers, either directly in public postal services and telecommunications, or indirectly through all the private contractors in the manufacturing and service sectors providing materials and supplies. As private companies in North America dominated telecommunications, this meant that the geographical size of continental Australia gave the PMG a territorial sweep unrivalled by other public telcos in Western Europe. In contrast to mass poverty in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Soviet Union, the affluence of late 1960s Australia meant that the PMG had unique political pressures placed upon it to provide egalitarian public services at standard affordable postage and phone rates across a giant continent. It also had a world-class, high-powered team of engineers, technicians and planners working to devise innovations and major national infrastructure programs.

I had little idea of what I was supposed to do working as a ‘humanist’ alongside these planners and engineers. After formal introductions and a briefing about the work being undertaken by these senior second and third division officers, I was asked by my superior to prepare a report on whether cable TV was needed in Australia and, if so, what should the PMG’s position be in relation to this technology. ‘Cable TV’, I exclaimed. ‘What is it and where does it operate?’ My superior replied that he didn’t know much about it but that Sir Frank Packer had made an application to start a cable network. My task was to analyse the social, economic and cultural aspects of cable TV and whether or not the PMG should grant a license to Packer’s ACP.

One thing was certain. I was not alone in my ignorance of cable TV. The more I researched it, the more I realised that most Australians had never heard of it. What also became clear was that most politicians, policy makers and business leaders— apart from a handful of people— also knew nothing about the potential of cable TV or, very importantly, that ‘God’ wanted to introduce it to Australia. Remember, this was 1969 and there were hardly any computers, no internet and no Google. The news came to Australia by camel. How was I to write this report?

I began asking some of the PMG engineers about cable and searching for relevant information in university and public libraries. Initially I discovered that cable had been used since the late 1940s in North America and Europe primarily as a technical device for communities to gain good free-to-air TV reception in those cities or regions affected by environmental obstructions such as mountains or city buildings. It was even called CATV or Community Antenna Television. I also visited a number of foreign consulates and embassies to learn about different national communications policies. Little new information was gained from the diplomatic officers or their small embassy libraries apart from greater familiarity with various national communication legislation and regulatory statutes.

The US and Canadian telecommunications scene nevertheless did provide hints of the potential attractiveness of cable TV. As an alternative counter-cultural option to the big TV networks, US radical media advocates were beginning to explore the possibility of using cable TV as a narrow-casting device to give voice to community groups, sub-cultures and others excluded from mainstream broadcasting. Politically, Frank Packer would certainly have not been interested in giving a platform to these alternative voices. In fact, to this day the use of cable TV as alternative news and cultural media has never emerged or flourished in Australia.

However, ‘God’ (or somebody else in ACP) may have been aware that local TV stations in the United States and Canada were upset that cable TV stations were transmitting CBS, NBC and ABC network programs into US and Canadian regions, thus taking local advertising dollars away from the free-to-air local stations, which were dependent on a mix of network and local regional programming. Could it be that ‘God’ was planning to increase competition with other TV operators by indirectly overcoming or bypassing Australian federal media regulations and penetrating capital cities and regional towns with a multi-channel pay TV cable network? Or was I imputing too much forward thinking to Packer and ACP? Perhaps they were just interested in providing better TV reception in Sydney and other places? After all, no cable network existed in the United States in 1969 (this only emerged in the late 1970s) and cable stations were still relaying existing network material rather than producing their own programs. Today, with hindsight, it is possible to see that it was only in 1972 that the Home Box Office (HBO) became one of the first cable companies to produce original programs. US rival cable TV networks with multiple pay TV channels and future hits such as The Wire, Mad Men or Curb Your Enthusiasm were inconceivable as models for extending media power at the end of the 1960s.

While researching and writing this report in 1969 and early 1970, I was also gaining a valuable insight into the political divisions of the upper echelons of the PMG. First, it was clear that many in telecommunications wanted to have their own department or statutory body separate from the postal services. Second, a more profound division existed between those who wanted to retain the provision of egalitarian national public services and those senior officers who favoured the adoption of market-based efficiency practices. These divisions were a dress rehearsal for future telecommunications policies that still divide Australia this present day. Many pro-market senior people expressed a profound dislike of Country Party politicians regularly lobbying to have expensive telecommunication infrastructure connected to isolated regional communities and the farms of wealthy ‘cocky’ mates. In contrast, they loved the ‘rivers of gold’ of the Sydney–Melbourne phone networks that earned the PMG a fortune. They told me how inflated phone call pricing disguised the reality that calls in these two cities could actually be provided free to the public or for a nominal 1 cent a call, as the infrastructure had long been largely paid off by taxpayers.

Within five years, the senior levels of telecommunications had their wishes fulfilled. The Whitlam government broke up the PMG in 1975 and divided it into two statutory bodies: Australia Post and Telecom Australia. Whitlam, like others (particularly many working at the The Australian in the 1960s), advocated a mixture of a modernised social democracy and economic rationalism. The two elements proved incompatible during the 1980s and 1990s as neo-liberal market values swamped social democracy.

While the break-up of the PMG into Australia Post and Telecom Australia may have sounded logical on paper, it was a prime example of what happens when public sector reformers adopt business practices and pander to the market’s definition of ‘efficiency’. If service was not very good prior to 1975, it deteriorated in later decades as staffing numbers were drastically cut back and the weaker and poorer members of society were neglected. The narrow focus on market definitions of productivity also resonated in cultural analysis. Far too many Australian cultural studies papers and media commentary continue to emphasise content and software while neglecting the vital issue of local and global hardware, especially the issue of who creates and produces communication hardware and how it either enables local autonomy or guarantees future social dependence.

The year 1975 marked the beginning of the end of the PMG’s high-powered centre of technological knowledge. Although initially retained by Telecom, it was eventually heavily scaled back under subsequent corporate and privatising managers. Telecom and Telstra increasingly outsourced or contracted off-shore at the expense of local jobs and innovation. A near fatal blow was struck against key sections of Australian engineering, electronics and other parts of the manufacturing industry, as well as against skill formation and apprenticeship training. Despite all the nationalist fantasy talk about the ‘knowledge economy’ promoted by the ALP and Liberals in recent decades, actual industry, education and trade policies told an entirely different story. By the year 2000, there was such a loss of vital skills and technical knowledge that there was not a hope in hell that Australian manufacturing could give rise to a local giant such as Finland’s Nokia, let alone end its heavy reliance on imported IT and electronic goods.

It was Margaret Thatcher who recognised the market value of Whitlam’s break-up of the PMG. This was the model she adopted in dismantling Britain’s PMG (1981) and then fully privatising British Telecom in 1984. By contrast, it was almost thirty years after 1975 before the Howard government fully privatised Telstra. Telecom and Telstra, unfortunately, had long operated as ruthless businesses rather than organisations providing essential public services for all Australians.

In my March 1970 report about cable TV I advised that Sir Frank Packer’s application be rejected, as cable was too valuable a media platform to be handed over to private companies before the PMG had even worked out the future of public broadcasting or its own future media policy. I do not know what ever happened to my report. It may have been accepted as PMG policy or pigeonholed like so many others. Whatever its fate, two things were confirmed by history: ‘God’ never opened a cable TV network and it was a quarter of a century before cable or pay TV began operating in Australia between 1993 and 1995.

Today, pay or cable TV is relatively stagnant in terms of household penetration. It has been weakened by the internet and will be overtaken by new media platforms when the National Broadband Network is completed. However, one thing has remained constant: the complete lack of desire by Coalition and Labor governments to democratise news and cultural production by breaking the power of the media monopolies. Paul Keating and John Howard especially left contemporary Australia with disastrous telecommunications and media legacies.

My short few months’ experience at the PMG had an eventful conclusion. After handing in my report I gave notice that I was returning to academia. In our office section there was an elderly, well-groomed senior clerk who had probably been with the PMG most of his life. He fussed about and regularly irritated the senior engineers and planners by enforcing bureaucratic rules such as requiring them to sign on or off if they were late for work or out of the office. On my last day he surprised me by coming up and giving me a gift in a large package. ‘Don’t thank me and don’t open it until you get home. If you don’t find it of interest, please pass it on. Good luck.’ Curiosity got the better of me and on the train home I opened the package to find two large volumes of The Secret Doctrine by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831– 91), a founder of the Theosophical Society. The following week I asked my history professor, the late Alan McBriar, what he knew about Madam Blavatsky. He told me that she was known as ‘HPB’ and was famous for her seances and her recruitment to theosophy of prominent Fabians such as women’s rights activist Annie Besant. The Theosophical Society had active branches in India and in Sydney. From the 1930s prominent spiritualists moved to Melbourne where the Theosophical Society still owns very valuable real estate in the heart of the city. Alan McBriar also said that I had probably been selected as a potential valuable recruit, hence the gift of the books.

Although I was not attracted to theosophy I kept the two volumes. While writing this article and refreshing my memory about ‘Red Ted’ Theodore of the AWU and the young Frank Packer, a strange experience occurred. Something prompted me to take the Secret Doctrine down from the bookshelf. While reading Volume One, I suddenly heard a women’s voice calling my name. I turned around but nobody was there. Then I heard the faint voice saying, ‘Paul Howes loves Bill Shorten’. Startled, I called out, ‘Is that you, HPB? And why are you telling me that Howes loves Shorten?’ ‘No, Boris, you misheard me. Not “loves” but “Ludwig”. I said, “Paul Howes, Bill Ludwig and Bill Shorten”. Beware the AWU and the mining industry for the danger they pose to the environment’. Before I could ask HPB another question, my phone started ringing. I picked it up only to hear not a spiritual voice, but the familiar and annoying echoing sound of a person in a faraway Indian call centre: ‘Mr FrAankeel’. ‘Yes’, I answered. ‘As a former Telstra customer we have a very good deal for you …’ ‘Sorry’, I interrupted, ‘not interested’, and slammed the phone down. Alas, by the time I regained my composure, HPB had disappeared into the ether and I have not heard from her since.

Boris Frankel will sing the lead role of Rupert Murdoch in the forthcoming New York production of the new Philip Glass opera ‘The Alchemist’.