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Now for some new media thinking, please

By Natasha Cica - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2006

The eulogising of Kerry Packer has been revealing. The words of shock-jock Alan Jones typify the dominant sentiment in the mainstream media: "A giant oak tree crashed in the Australian forest of great people. Look out at the MCG today; I sense the grass will be a little less green. With Kerry's passing, much of the shine has gone from many things."

A different take appeared on Polichicks co-founder Marieke Hardy's Reasons You Will Hate Me blog site: "I was still lazing around a back garden with a glass of wine when someone arrived and announced with a kind of noncommittal awe that ol' fish face had expired. It was news. We took it in, and continued drinking."

In between there's been talk of PBL's share price as leadership shifts to James, and even some reminder of the dramatic mid-'80s Goanna slur, courtesy of the Costigan royal commission and the long-defunct National Times newspaper. But we've yet to see truly forensic exploration of the Packer empire's relationships with our political leaders, and of the implications for democratic debate, past and future.


Australians are habitually chided for political apathy. New World naivety might be more accurate. But even that misses the mark. As the harbingers of the new right keep reminding us, we inhabit a mature Western democracy whose cup is more full than empty. This means Australians are potentially more politically engaged, and certainly more astute consumers, than we tend to assume. It also means a critical mass of us would gravitate towards anyone telling our stories from a fresher, smarter slant.

That demands the right mix of quality, independence and acumen. Today, no Australian media products are consistently cracking that magic combination.

Our mainstream suppliers of so-called old political media are getting stuck in a failing groove. With some vital exceptions, they disproportionately favour neo-cons (still railing at the UN and the left-wing commentariat) and slackened boomers (still running the Dismissal or the Oz trial with a Rolling Stones soundtrack). The tone often oscillates wildly between lifestyle-lite and humourless moralising.

Important indie magazines such as The Monthly and The Diplomat aren't fully filling the breach, and Australian politics online isn't as compelling as it could be. To varying degrees and with differing agendas, Eric Beecher and Di Gribble's Crikey!, Margo Kingston's WebDiary, Graham Young's On Line Opinion, Jeremy Heiman's and David Madden's GetUp, Lindsay Tuffin's TasmanianTimes and John Menadue's NewMatilda do make invaluable space for something different.

But none has fully capitalised on the secret of old media's former success - must-read reportage from surprising angles with pointy hooks that relied, lest we forget, on the shock of exposing the edgy new.

On this opening front, don't underestimate James Packer. Much is being made of his professional penchant for online activity. That means he understands how and why a blog's not Betfair, and ninemsn's not exactly The Bulletin. It also means he understands the power of cross-platform content, and the dangers of placing either old or new media on a pedestal, or in a silo. These days, neither old nor new can work to full potential without partnering the other. The business trick is finding a match of more than short-lived, desperate convenience. Which is why all roads lead back to the pulling power of core content.


As Kerry Packer might have put it, this is about different polo ponies for different courses. Rugby, gambling, online dating and even Tracy Grimshaw's blonde can all work well as mass-market products. But there will always be people who'll shell out a fair bit more for premium thinking content.

There's a richer and deeper Australian content niche waiting to happen. Consumers are hungrier than number-crunchers may imagine for homegrown, upcoming versions of Robert Fisk, Julie Burchill, Gore Vidal, Maureen Dowd and Francis Wheen.

Is the Australian media industry doomed to repeat the mistakes of its history? Not necessarily.

As Jonesy continued in his reverie: "Kerry was tough and unconventional, rarely seen to be keeping step with the times but, rather, marching ahead of them."

For all Kerry Packer's faults, and unlike many who fell into his line, he was more dissident than technocrat. He had the smarts to think laterally and the balls to shake things up. That should stand as the best of his media legacy, and not just for Publishing and Broadcasting Limited's benefit.

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First published in The Age on December 30, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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