Rules of Engagement.
In a long and productive career in film, TV and print media, Kim Williams observed at first hand the strengths and weaknesses of the most powerful men in Australian media.
In his new book Rules of Engagement the former head of News Corp, Foxtel and Fox Studios Australia provides candid insights into the moguls he worked for and against.
Of Rupert Murdoch, for whom he worked for 18 years, he writes: “[His empire] stands as a testament to a single man and an outstanding instinct and passion for all aspects of media and its evolution over its lifetime. He is without question Australia’s greatest entrepreneur. "
Williams contrasts Murdoch’s notoriously hands-on approach with his newspaper editors with his willingness to empower the managers of his broadcasting and film divisions, observing, “It is not coincidental in my view that all the best commercial performance has been in these parts of the company for a very long time. It is a genuine meritocracy.”
It’s clear Williams had a turbulent relationship with Kerry Packer, whom he described as a “real bully” but whom he admired as “so much larger than life, so strong, so very much his own man.”
Packer was a fierce critic of Foxtel, despite owning 25% of the platform via PBL, accusing it of stealing advertising from the Nine Network.
Foxtel was losing more than $3 million a week when Williams took charge in 2001. When the pay-TV company made its first profit in 2006, Packer told Williams he doubted that would ever happen.
In his 10 years running Foxtel it became the most profitable media company in Australia, and he gives much of the credit to the executive team and workforce.
Williams is an admirer of Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes, rating him as a “canny proprietor, often several moves ahead of the others.”
But he is scathing about Sam Chisholm, who was the Telstra-appointed chairman of Foxtel for three years and became a thorn in his side.
Chisholm rang him at all hours, he writes, “screaming, hectoring and demanding often conflicting things with nothing obvious driving the verbal assaults except for believing he was in charge with the power to humiliate others. I made it clear he wasn’t in charge and he became feral.”
Nor was Williams a fan of Labor’s Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, with whom he butted heads over the anti-siphoning rules, the NBN and the latter’s aborted attempts at media reforms.
He rails at Conroy’s “hysterical” response to an Australian Financial Review profile on the Minister which quoted Williams, and his refusal to engage on the media reforms, proposals which he characterizes as “sinister and repugnant.”
In the book Williams traces the seeds of his downfall as CEO of News Corp. to the day he launched then Labor backbencher Chris Bowen’s book Hearts and Minds in July 2013.
“All hell broke out for me in News Corp soon afterwards,” he writes. “By the start of August I no longer had a job. Colleagues who mattered had lost confidence in my views (if they ever had them) and the speech to launch the book was seen as unsound and inappropriate.”
After a conversation with a disapproving Murdoch, he said “I knew my goose was cooked.” He stands by that speech.
Tomorrow: Williams’ views on Australian cinema and his tenures as CEO of the Australian Film Commission and chairman of the Film Finance Corp.
Rules of Engagement by Kim Williams (MUP), RRP $45.99, is published this week and available at mup.com.au