Bridget Griffen-Foley, The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire

Julie Kimber

Bridget Griffen-Foley: The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire, Allen & Unwin, St.Leonards, 2000. pp., v-398, paperback, $27.95

In her history of the founding of the Packer media empire, Bridget Griffen-Foley tells the rather amusing, though needless to say disturbing story of an irate Frank Packer who, when stuck on the third floor of the Consolidated Press building (while an elevator went by), walked down to the ground floor and sacked the hapless employee waiting for the lift at the bottom. The incident caused an industrial dispute resulting in the employee’s reinstatement but Packer refused to pay for lost wages. One version of the story that later circulated was that the ‘sacked’ worker was not an employee but a postal worker. As Griffen-Foley points out, this incident, retold in various versions, ‘is seen as emblematic of Packer’s capricious and autocratic managerial style’ (p.223). In all probability, this modus-operandi was not confined to Packer himself, it seems to have been characteristic of all of the management of the Packer media empire. Indeed, in reading this lively and comprehensive account, one is struck by a sense of ‘boys own’ individualism and the seeming continual need of the Packer men to prove themselves to each other and the world.

Griffen-Foley’s history is suffused with tales of unscrupulous deals, power tussles and media proprietors’ attempts at manipulation of public opinion. The House of Packer traces the emergence and growth of the giant ‘corporate octopus’, Australian Consolidated Press, or what Lang earlier referred to as ‘this gang of respectable thieves’ (p.29). It follows R.C (‘Clyde’) Packer’s entrance into journalism as a young reporter with the Tasmanian News in 1900 (p.2) and ends with the death of his son, Frank, in 1974.

The first chapter of the book details the background to the Packer family, and introduces us to the young Clyde Packer, influenced by the ‘new journalism’. Packer’s work on Smith’s Weekly, which earned him a ‘one third share in the company’, provided the foundation for his entrance into publishing (p.5).

For labour history enthusiasts this book provides illuminating details of the relationship between Clyde Packer and Ted Theodore, and the deals that thwarted that other ‘veritable octopus’1 – the AWU – in its attempts at producing a labour daily. This included a rather shady triangulated deal between Clyde, Frank and Theodore, which led to the downfall of the AWU paper, the World, and enabled Frank Packer and Theodore to set up the Australian Women’s Weekly.

The second chapter pursues this theme and goes on to detail the setting up of the Weekly. Here Griffen-Foley points out:

the irony of the fact that the printing presses which had been installed to produce labour publications were now printing a highly popular, middle-class and consumer-orientated magazine could not have been lost on the AWU. (p. 37)

The success of the Weekly enabled the Packer empire to take over The Daily Telegraph, which had a ‘complex brand of liberalism’ in its early years but slowly moved to the right, earning its ‘reactionary reputation’ (p.144). The following chapters deal with the purchase and consolidation of The Daily Telegraph, through which Frank Packer ‘was determined to strike out on his own and prove his business and publishing mettle.’ (p.74)

This is not simply a book about the Packer men, it is also an interesting narrative of the media in its complexities. Packer and his coteries’ dealings throughout World War II and post-war period, particularly with regard to their relationship with the Federal Labor Party and disputes over censorship, make for fascinating reading and go part of the way in explaining the
Telegraph’s shift to the right, and its support of Menzies and his attacks on the Communist Party. Many other interesting stories include the background to Telegraph articles, such as the ALP’s ‘36 faceless men’ (p.264), various industrial disputes at Consolidated Press (for example, p. 221), the drama which surrounded the publication of Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’ Come in Spinner (p.148), and a wonderful account of (Frank) Packer’s relationship with Ita Buttrose (p.289).

Griffen-Foley details the Packers’ foray into television, including the story of Frank Packer’s instruction to Gyngell to interrupt the broadcast of a movie so he could show his friends a horse race (p.217). There are also some telling comments by others. Rupert Murdoch described Frank Packer as ‘the biggest crook in Australian newspapers, but equally he is the cleverest’ (p.281), while Arthur Fadden referred to The Daily Telegraph as the ‘sausage wrapper’ (p.193). The eventual sale of the Telegraph in 1972 appeared to have a devastating effect on Frank Packer. He died two years later.

The sections dealing with the Australian Women’s Weekly are particularly interesting especially in relation to the way in which the magazine dealt with issues such as nationalism and women working during the war, the idea of women as ‘wives and mothers first’ after the war, and the later re-emergence of feminism and the embracing of the teenager as a consumer entity.

This is an exceptionally well-researched and beautifully crafted text. Despite the fact that Consolidated Press ‘declined to provide access of its own archives’ to Griffen-Foley, she has made imaginative use of ‘alternative sources’, reminding us again of the immense importance of resources such as the Noel Butlin Archive Centre. Griffen-Foley argues that the book seeks (among other things) to explain the factors behind the ‘Australian media industry becoming an oligopoly’. It certainly fulfils that brief more than adequately. 1. Dabscheck, B., ‘Book Review: One Big Union’, JIR, vol. 38, no. 2, June 1996, p.324.