Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Packer, Robert Clyde (1879–1934)

by Richard White

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Robert Clyde Packer (1879-1934), newspaperman, was born on 24 July 1879 in Hobart Town, son of Arthur Howard Packer, landing waiter with Tasmanian Customs, and his wife Margaret FitzMaurice, née Clyde, and nephew of F. A. G. Packer. He attended The Hutchins School, then worked as a reporter until in 1902 he left for Sydney. At first he could only find labouring jobs, but, after marrying Ethel Maude, daughter of Archdeacon Frank Hewson of Ireland, on 13 July 1903 at Paddington, he embarked on a diversified apprenticeship on the New South Wales and North Queensland country press. A son was born in 1906 and a daughter in 1910.

In 1908 Packer returned to Sydney to join the Sunday Times. The editor T. R. Roydhouse involved the energetic, robust and good-looking newcomer in the Boy Scouts' Association as chief scoutmaster of New South Wales. By 1913 Packer was editor and built the paper's circulation to over 100,000, but he left when Hugh D. McIntosh took control and paid him £500 for breaking his contract.

Several times Packer attempted to join the Australian Imperial Force but was rejected on medical grounds. After flirting with a film company he returned to journalism as sub-editor of the Sun in 1916 and later editor of the Sunday Sun. In 1918 he joined the lord mayor (Sir) Joynton Smith and Claude McKay in promoting, with much ballyhoo, the highly successful seventh war loan. From this association sprang Smith's Weekly, first published on 1 March 1919. With Smith's substantial financial backing, McKay's editing and Packer's design and dynamic management, the paper was a success, combining writ-prone irreverence, sensational 'angles', abundant illustration and a strong appeal to the digger ethos. When Smith gave the others each a third share in the business after it broke even in 1921, he made them wealthy men. They launched the Daily Guardian in July 1923 and, after McKay left over policy differences, the Sunday Guardian in September 1929. Despite the crowded Sydney market, Smith's Newspapers Ltd prospered, setting the pace in turning news into entertainment—sport, crime, political scandal and human interest.

Packer recruited talented staff, drove them hard but paid top salaries. Some of his protégés, not least his son Frank, rose to influential positions in the newspaper world. He was the pattern of the modern newspaper boss, innovative, cynical, thriving on hard work, inspiring loyalty as well as enmity, politically influential but chiefly concerned with commercial advantage. He had a creative approach to news although more fastidious journalists saw some of his methods as unethical. He kept up with overseas trends, gave readers free accident insurance, introduced competitions, bought cocaine and sold white slaves to expose corruption. His greatest success was organizing the first Miss Australia contest (1926) which at its climax sold 275,000 copies of the Daily Guardian. To Eric Baume he was 'the Molyneux or Schiaparelli of the Australian Press'; the Bulletin considered that he had 'great journalistic gifts of a sort—organising ability, energy and a keen sense of what readers of the mental age of 15, or less, want in the way of news and stunts'.

In January 1930 Sir Hugh Denison paid Smith's £175,000 and 400,000 preference shares in Associated Newspapers Ltd for the two Guardians and a promise not to compete for twenty-one years. Packer received 175,000 of the shares. With the Depression and without Packer, Denison's new acquisitions lost circulation and ceased publication in 1931. To protect his new shareholding, which was rapidly losing value, Packer went over to Associated Newspapers as managing editor of their remaining papers in September. Despite boardroom intrigue, he helped Denison's empire to weather the crisis. There were also outside intrigues. On 17 March 1932 Premier J. T. Lang rushed into parliament, though failed to pursue, a bill ostensibly protecting preference shareholders in Smith's which, with its retrospective clause, would have bankrupted Packer. Lang saw Packer as an active opponent behind the scenes, claiming (Sir) Bertram Stevens was Packer's 'echo', although Packer was also linked to non-party right-wing movements such as the New Guard and the Riverina Movement of Charles Hardy.

Pressure of work and a sailing accident left Packer a sick man. He still enjoyed kangaroo-shooting and sailing, which he had learned as a boy on the Derwent; he bought (in 1931) and raced Sir Alexander MacCormick's famous cutter, Morna. He did not get on with Denison, who was infuriated when Associated Newspapers was committed by Packer to paying his son Frank and E. G. Theodore £86,000 not to publish an evening daily for three years, thus providing them with the capital to launch the Australian Women's Weekly. Packer resigned through ill health in June 1933 and left for England—his only overseas trip—in an unsuccessful quest for treatment. He died of arteriosclerosis in the Maloja, off Marseilles, France, on 12 April 1934, when returning to Australia. After a service at St James' Church, King Street, on 21 May, he was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £54,307. Portraits of him are held by his daughter and Australian Consolidated Press Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Smith, My Life Story (Syd, 1927)
  • E. Baume, I Lived These Years (Lond, 1941)
  • C. McKay, This is the Life (Syd, 1961)
  • R. S. Whitington, Sir Frank (Melb, 1971)
  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith's Weekly? (Adel, 1975)
  • R. B. Walker, Yesterday's News (Syd, 1980)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1932-34, p 8745
  • Newspaper News, 1 July 1930, 1 May 1934, 1 June 1934
  • Bulletin, 18 Apr 1934
  • V. Molesworth papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Army, SP1141, Classified records, Intelligence report, item 13, 26 Oct 1931 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard White, 'Packer, Robert Clyde (1879–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/packer-robert-clyde-7940/text13819, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017