Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Packer, Sir Douglas Frank (1906–1974)

by Bridget Griffen-Foley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Douglas Frank Hewson Packer (1906-1974), media proprietor, was born on 3 December 1906 at Kings Cross, Sydney, elder child of Robert Clyde Packer, a Tasmanian-born journalist, and his wife Ethel Maude, née Hewson (d.1947), who came from Ireland. A mischievous youngster and a poor student, Frank attended Abbotsholme and Turramurra colleges, Wahroonga Grammar School and Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). Despite an accident which caused the loss of most of the sight in his right eye, he was 'strong as a bear, aggressive, full of fight' and participated enthusiastically in Rugby Union football, cricket and rowing. He did not sit for the Intermediate certificate.

In 1923 Packer became a cadet on the Daily Guardian, recently launched by Smith's Newspapers Ltd (a company in which his father held a one-third share). Revelling in schemes to expose corruption, Frank found himself unloading newsprint and working in the engine-room, for his father insisted that he learn every aspect of newspaper production. About 1924 he went jackerooing in the central west of New South Wales; digging up weeds dispelled the appeal of life on the land. His return to Smith's Newspapers in 1926 coincided with the first Miss Australia contest. Frank and Claude McKay accompanied the winner Beryl Mills on a tour of the United States of America. Back at Smith's, he served as assistant business manager and then as advertising director. Although his financial flair was already obvious, his promotion was resented by a number of people who depicted him as a reckless gambler and playboy.

In 1930 Sir Hugh Denison acquired the Daily Guardian and Sunday Guardian for £175,000 and 400,000 preference shares in Associated Newspapers Ltd. The shares were divided among ordinary shareholders in Smith's Newspapers and the Packers received about 173,000 of them. When Sir James Joynton Smith bought out the Packers' shares in 1931, R. C. Packer was appointed managing editor of Associated Newspapers. Frank joined the company in January 1932. The constant boardroom intrigues made his colleagues feel that he was acting as a 'detective' and led to his quick departure.

In October 1932 the journalist G. W. 'George' Warnecke told the Packers of a plan to convert the Australian Workers' Union's daily, the World, into a 1d. afternoon newspaper to attract a takeover offer from Associated Newspapers, whose Sun was retailing at 1½d. Frank met with E. G. Theodore who saw a vitality and shrewdness in him. For his part, Frank was to regard Theodore as a father figure. When it became clear that Associated Newspapers was prepared to offer a financial incentive not to publish the World, Denison authorized R. C. Packer to 'fix up the matter'. Denison was furious when Associated Newspapers was committed to pay Frank's and Theodore's infant company, Sydney Newspapers Ltd, £86,500 in return for an agreement not to publish a daily or Sunday newspaper for three years. Frank joined Theodore, John Wren and P. F. Cody in a Fijian gold-mining venture.

Lacking the capital himself, Warnecke suggested to Packer that they publish a women's newspaper with a national focus. Theodore agreed to help to finance the project. The Australian Women's Weekly—vigorously promoted, edited by Warnecke and staffed by outstanding contributors like Alice Jackson—appeared in June 1933. It combined topical features with the traditional contents of women's magazines (such as recipes and patterns), abundant fiction and sophisticated fashion illustrations. In comparison, rival magazines looked staid and matronly. The first issue was phenomenally successful: the sale of 121,162 copies far exceeded the estimated circulation of 50,000.

Packer rushed to England in January 1934 to join his gravely ill father. In April, as he made his way back to the Weekly, his beloved father died. Frank inherited most of his share portfolio. At All Saints Church, Woollahra, on 24 July 1934 he married with Anglican rites Gretel Joyce Bullmore, a sister of Mary Hordern. For some years he had doggedly pursued the beautiful, vivacious and sports-loving Gretel, who was at the forefront of Sydney society. They were to have two sons, (Robert) Clyde and Kerry.

With the 1932 agreement about to lapse, Packer considered launching a daily newspaper. Associated Newspapers was alarmed at the prospect of a new competitor for the Sun. The goodwill of its moribund morning newspaper, the Telegraph, and that of the Weekly, was transferred to a new company, Consolidated Press Ltd, registered in January 1936. Packer and Theodore were, respectively, managing director and chairman. In March the new Daily Telegraph—under the control of Sydney Deamer—appeared; less concerned with partisan politics, the revitalized newspaper posited itself as a forum for progressive and modernist ideas. In 1939, the year in which Packer became president of the Australian Newspapers Conference, the Sunday Telegraph, edited by Cyril Pearl, was launched.

Packer was commissioned lieutenant, Militia, in April 1939 and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 1 February 1941. Next year Prime Minister Curtin appointed Theodore director-general of the Allied Works Council. Packer was seconded to serve as director of personnel. The appointments were pilloried by newspaper rivals, old political opponents and some trade unions. An inquiry in 1943 cleared the A.W.C. of charges of corruption and breaching awards. Packer scrutinized the wartime activities of his publications, which were struggling under newsprint and censorship restrictions; on one occasion he was accused of running his papers during government time. In 1944 he resigned from the A.W.C. He served in Australia and New Guinea with the 43rd Landing Craft Company and the 2nd/1st Amphibious Armoured Squadron before transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 14 July 1945.

During a business trip to England in October, Packer asserted that Australia should be consulted in any settlement with Japan, and that an imperial council should be formed to speak for all members of the British Empire and Commonwealth. He feared that the Empire might collapse and that Australia would be left alone, 'a tiny white population on the perimeter of Asia'. New South Wales president (1950-51) of the Australian-American Association, he was also a director (1953-56) of Reuters Ltd and a founding councillor (1954) of the Nuclear Research Foundation within the University of Sydney.

His newspapers supported the Liberal and Country parties after the 1946 election. In 1948, believing that the Weekly's newsprint allocation was discriminatory, Packer accused Prime Minister Chifley of allowing other publishers to invade the magazine's 'birthright' and openly threatened to intensify his publications' hostility to Labor. Yet, when private companies controlled by Packer were examined by the commissioner for taxation in 1952, his newspapers savaged the treasurer Sir Arthur Fadden for amendments to income tax laws. Packer then created family trusts and Consolidated Press Holdings Ltd (1954). His interests were to extend from newspaper, magazine and book publishing to printing, television, film distribution, tourist resorts and a piggery. During the Cold War his papers had turned increasingly to the right. On his instructions, the Daily Telegraph (7 March 1953) marked Joseph Stalin's death with a sketch of a crocodile crying and the caption, 'POOR OLD JOE'.

In 1955 Packer established an affiliated company, Television Corporation Ltd, which obtained a Sydney television licence. On 16 September 1956 TCN-9 began transmitting experimental programmes. Although he was chairman, Packer never felt as comfortable with television as he did with the press. In 1960 his group purchased a majority shareholding in General Television Corporation Pty Ltd, Melbourne. Packer made regular visits to London and New York, where he stayed at luxury hotels and negotiated deals. Australian Consolidated Press Ltd, as his main company became known in 1957, launched a plethora of publications at this time: the 'radically conservative' Observer was the only one of cultural significance.

Despite his working knowledge of newspapers, Packer always remained self-conscious about his limited journalistic experience. The 'Young Master' fiercely defended his father's achievements and reputation. His own achievements were largely due to two exceptional mentors, financial cunning, bravado, prodigious energy and an ability to identify and nurture the talents of others. Packer fell out with several individuals who had participated in his early successes. He resented Warnecke's closeness to R. C. Packer and his belief that he was entitled to a major shareholding in the company; Warnecke maintained that Frank did not want to be seen as 'the playboy son of a rich father' or to share the credit for his achievements. When relations became strained with N. B. Theodore, who had assumed various executive positions held by his father, Packer acquired his family's shareholding in 1957.

Office gossip centred round Packer's latest burst of tyranny. The flurry of memoranda concerning petty cash for models' brassieres, camera bulbs and seating requirements bordered on high farce. He made generous donations to charity on the condition that they were not publicized, bestowed largesse on employees down on their luck and adopted stray dogs while fighting against increases in award wages and indulging in ritual sackings.

Packer had immense charm, when he cared to exercise it, but he was viewed with disdain by some members of the establishment. Few forgot his brawl with Ezra Norton at Randwick racecourse in 1939. Packer was 6 ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall and thickset, with blue eyes, dark brown wavy hair, a jutting jaw and a husky voice. His sense of humour and blustering manner hid his shyness. When choristers performed 'Hark! the Herald-Angels Sing' outside Cairnton, his Bellevue Hill mansion, he offered them money to sing 'Hark! the Telegraph-Angels Sing' outside (Sir) Warwick Fairfax's household.

Knighted in 1959, Packer joined the boards of charities such as the Royal Blind Society of New South Wales and the University of Sydney's Post Graduate Medical Foundation. He was increasingly drawn to traditional Australian institutions: when he acquired the Bulletin and attempted to take over Angus & Robertson Ltd, observers wondered whether St Andrew's Cathedral would be the next property targeted.

In 1960 Packer flew with Gretel to the United States for her heart surgery. He was by her side when she died in the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. Their marriage had endured his roving eye and more than one affair. By this time their sons were working at Consolidated Press, where they were subjected to their father's bullying. On 15 June 1964 at the register office, Westminster, London, Frank married the stylish, half-Russian, half-French, twice-wed divorcee Florence Adeline Vincent, née Porges.

Sport remained Packer's passion. He had won the State amateur heavyweight boxing championship in 1929, and was an accomplished polo player and yachtsman before World War II. He won the 1947 Caulfield Cup with Columnist, bred at his part-owned stud. Packer served on the committees of the New South Wales Amateur Boxing Association, the New South Wales Polo Association, the Australian Jockey Club and the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. He belonged to the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron and the Australian Golf Club, held Sunday tennis parties, and imported an American golf cart which he used when holidaying at Surfers Paradise, Queensland.

Having commissioned Australia's 12-metre sloop, Gretel, to compete in the 1962 America's Cup, Packer (who loved to 'pile on sail and barge straight ahead') adopted a 'hands-on' approach to the challenge, which was unsuccessful. He tried again in 1970: when his syndicate's appeal against the disqualification of Gretel II in the second race failed, he commented that appealing against the New York Yacht Club was like complaining to your mother-in-law about your wife. In 1971 he was appointed K.B.E.

Packer candidly admitted that the Telegraphs were political bludgeons. His editors and editor-in-chief David McNicoll 'learnt how to sniff the breeze'. Following the award of a libel payment of £30,000 in 1963 to a Labor politician Tom Uren against the Bulletin and Telegraphs, a six-year legal battle raged until the matter was settled out of court. By late 1969 Packer was campaigning against Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton and promoting (Sir) William McMahon, the treasurer and an old friend. Although Gorton's administration was dogged by controversy, Packer was dubbed a 'king-maker' for his role in McMahon's accession to the prime ministership in March 1971.

Sir Frank had executed a business coup in 1967 which increased his family's wealth and forced Rupert Murdoch to sell his interest in Television Corporation; Murdoch had once observed that Packer was 'the biggest crook in Australian newspapers, but equally he is the cleverest'. Packer had developed elaborate measures to hide the Telegraphs' losses. He had long realized the necessity of producing an afternoon newspaper to use idle printing capacity, but his efforts to acquire a majority shareholding in Associated Newspapers Ltd in 1953 had been thwarted by John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd. Despite impressive sales, the Daily Telegraph had never been able to break the Sydney Morning Herald's stranglehold on classified advertising, and had always been subsidized by the Weekly. In June 1972, following a printers' strike, Packer finally acceded to his sons' pressure to sell the Telegraphs to News Ltd for $15 million.

After taking over K. G. Murray's family interests in Publishers Holdings Ltd, Consolidated Press became the largest magazine publisher in the southern hemisphere. It was of little consolation to Packer, who was devastated by losing his newspapers—'he cried when he spoke of it; his face was pinched and his gaze distracted'. There were two further blows in 1972. Clyde resigned in protest at his father's order that an interview with R. J. L. Hawke, the leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, could not be telecast; and the Weekly's editor Esmé Fenston, whom Packer revered, died suddenly.

Despite being fitted with a pacemaker and despite his glaucoma, Packer could not resist one final political foray. During the 1972 elections he forbade the Bulletin to run a feature on Margaret Whitlam, the wife of E. G. Whitlam, leader of the Australian Labor Party, and he instructed senior staff to deliver editorials on TCN-9 supporting McMahon. Part of the agreement with News Ltd had been a promise not to start another newspaper for two years. As the second anniversary of the sale approached, Packer ordered offset presses. Survived by his wife and by the sons of his first marriage, he died of cancer and pneumonia on 1 May 1974 in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $1.3 million; tax minimization schemes meant that the assets under his control were worth much more. Although Clyde had been reconciled with his father, Kerry took charge of the empire; they cancelled the order for the new presses.

Packer took risks and lived fast. His financial deals, political campaigns and sporting efforts were spectacular. As The Times noted, he was 'in a real sense a colourful figure, but his colours were always primary ones'. Emery Barcs, the veteran Telegraph foreign correspondent, recorded: 'The King is dead. I was fond of that strange buccaneer'. Judy Cassab's portrait (1956) of Packer is held by Australian Consolidated Press Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Griffen-Foley, The House of Packer (Syd, 1999) and for bibliography
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth, House of Representatives), vol 219, 1952, p 2314
  • Prime Minister's Department, Allied Works Council, A1608, AK27/1/2 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Cabinet Secretariat, A4909/XM1, Cabinet Minutes, vol 5 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Department of Trade and Customs, CP208/1, A37 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Department of Information, SP195/2, 365/25 (National Archives of Australia)
  • John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd Archives, Sydney
  • Barcs family papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sir Jack Cassidy papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Donald Horne papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Voltaire Molesworth papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sir Lloyd Dumas papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Sir Robert Menzies papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Alan Reid papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Sir Ernest White papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bridget Griffen-Foley, 'Packer, Sir Douglas Frank (1906–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/packer-sir-douglas-frank-11326/text20221, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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