''Keating vs Packer''

October 1999

PAUL Keating has boiled over again but some of what he had to say at the NSW state conference last Sunday is worth exploring.

At the outset, you need to remember that Keating is a Suharto apologist who sold his piggery for a handy profit to Indonesian interests when PM and has made plenty of money advising companies on how to deal with our nearest neighbour.

For Keating to so viciously attack John Howard's handling of the East Timor situation is therefore somewhat of a chin-leading exercise. However, this is not to say Howard, Alexander Downer and John Moore have not made some sizeable mistakes.

Keating is so like Jeff Kennett it is not funny and Sunday's speech that Keating gave is exactly the sort of thing Jeff would do once out of office. It defended his own record, was arguably unAustralian and accused the media of conspiracies to get him. Keating and Kennett like each other and have both had questionable personal business dealings that should have been more closely scrutinised at the time.

I rang Keating's office last week over an item appearing in my ''Bitch'' gossip column for The Eye magazine, which is available in newsagents from October 7. When Keating heard the magazine is run by Eric Beecher's Text Media he immediately suspected conspiracies because Beecher is a former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. The conspiracist in Keating has him believing Kerry Packer controls Fairfax and this is why their papers, especially the SMH, have been out to get him. This, of course, was completely wrong. I was simply ringing over an item that was my idea and no one else's.

Keating thinks that Packer is out to get him and that is why Paul Lyneham ran an entire 60 Minutes episode exploring his piggery dealings. This too is rubbish. Lyneham got box load after box load of documents from Keating's embittered former partner Al and Kerry Packer only found out about the program very late in the piece. It was a great story, of major public interest and Keating never sued so most of it was probably right.

However, Keating's claims that Packer attempted to cripple Steve Bracks' campaign is worth exploring. Ironically, the only thing that saved Nine's credibility when subjected to such an attack of bias was the 12-minute item Paul Lyneham did for 60 Minutes on the Sunday before the election.

I don't know what show Keating was watching because this was a hard-hitting piece that was definitely net-negative for Kennett and was broadcast nationally on prime time television. It rated well and therefore damaged Kennett.

I spent several hours talking to Lyneham about Kennett and felt much of what I and other critics said was reflected in his report, if not used directly. That 3AW's Kennett apologist Neil Mitchell subsequently attacked Lyneham said a lot about the tone of the report. Keating is just plain wrong to say it was a favourable profile for Kennett.

However, this was the exception to the rule and Kennett's two soft appearances on Nine's Burke's Backyard during the election smacked of blatant favouritism. Similarly, the cover story on Labor Party branch stacking that Sunday ran mid-campaign looked a bit unfair. They used two year old footage of Steve Bracks to drag him into a scandal that he appeared to have little to do with.

When Keating woke up last Sunday he would have seen Sunday sticking the boots heavily into Labor again over branch stacking. It was the full box and dice set to music and painted a disgraceful picture of the ALP. I suspect Keating watched this and simply exploded with his full symphony of abuse at the Labor Party conference. Branch stacking is a worthwhile story ut Sunday has to be very careful going in so hard right in the middle of an election campaign. Why hasn't Sunday done anything substantial on the remarkable political injuries inflicted on Jeff Kennett by Victorian voters.

Kerry Packer's media credibility is very much on the line over the Victorian election. I for one would love to get the bottom of his alleged secret $400,000 defamation settlement with Jeff Kennett, especially as he has made well over $500 million from Crown.

Packer has never before had so much at stake over an election. Having just bet $2 billion buying the world's biggest casino he now faces the prospect of vehement casino critic and Labor Party headkicker Rob Hulls becoming gaming minister and Attorney General. Hulls could make life very difficult for Packer, Lloyd Williams and Ron Walker with a combination of Royal Commissions and regulatory changes.

Imagine if the government started clamping down on positive gambling advertising and cranked up a huge anti-gambling campaign. And how would Lloyd, Ron and Kerry enjoy sitting through a tough new probity test.

Anyone who has read Paul Barry's fabulous book ''The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer'' would know how notorious Australia's richest man is for using his media influence to back his political mates.

Packer publicly endorsed Bob Hawke, the Labor Prime Minister who allowed taxpayers to squander hundreds of millions on Aussat. Nine got to use the Aussat satellites without paying much towards their cost.

And who could forget the fact that Peter Baron, the former senior adviser to then NSW Labor Premier Neville Wran, actually wrote the editorial that appeared in one of Packer's local papers during a key by-election that kept Wran's government alive in the late 1970s.

That would be the equivalent of Packer owning the Frankston East Bugle and Richo writing a glowing editorial urging voters to vote for Jeff because he's just fantastic and Labor is incompetent. The NSW by-election episode was an absolute disgrace as it occurred shortly after Wran backed Packer in his battle with the cricketing establishmnt over World Series Cricket and NSW taxpayers even paid for the light towers to be erected at the SCG. And who could forget how the Wran government gave Packer and Murdoch the controversial Lotto monopoly in NSW. Another disgrace.

Keating knew all this history about Packer and Richo when he made his allegations on Sunday. He would know that his own preselection battle for the seat of Blaxland in the early 1970s was open to accusations of branch stacking and that Richo played a big part in it. Richo was one of the worst offending branch stackers in Labor Party history yet now appears on Sunday making pious comments about how Labor has got to clean up its act. What a hypocrit.

The Packer tentacles spread far and wide and you can bet your bottom dollar that he and interests involved in Crown will be pulling out all stops to prevent Labor forming government in Victoria. Rob Hulls is a huge political risk for everyone involved in Crown. The thing we all should watch out for is how this influence manifests itself. The Keating attack will probably neuter any blatant use of Packer media outlets. However, James Packer has apparently withdrawn an earlier offer of a donation to Labor. Keating's attack will ensure this never materialises.

You can expect the Murdoch press to give Keating a good run as he is close to Col Allan, the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Telegraph and John Hartigan, News Ltd's Group Editorial Director. If Keating is genuinely concerned with diversity of media ownership he is a complete hypocrit because he and Hawke together changed the cross-media ownership rules to allow Murdoch to take over the right wing Herald & Weekly Times in 1987. This gave Murdoch control of about 60 per cent of the Australian newspaper market, an unprecedented level of concentration anywhere in the world.

The way other opinion leaders play the Keating/Packer battle will be interesting also. Kennett apologist Neil Mitchell has already stuck the boots into Keating as has Packer-employee and apologist Alan Jones. John Laws, Jones's stablemate on Sydney's 2UE, is close to Keating and in the Murdoch camp so expect him to defend the former PM.

This is the sad thing about the Australian media. It is full of commercial conflicts of interest, personal alliances and hidden agendas. There are not too many outlets that can take a neutral position and assess things on their merits. Media Watch is not even going to bother to assess Nine's coverage and analyse whether Keating's claims are true. I suspect no one will do this just as no-one has bothered to critically analyse the make-up of the new Kennett cabinet.

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