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‘Don’t do it!’ was the headline advice I received 25 years ago. I had just graduated with Honours in Modern History from Macquarie University along with, as one thesis examiner joshed, ‘endless enthusiasm’. My passion for history was increasingly focused on the media.
As an undergraduate, I had been introduced to primary sources by Dr Frank Clarke and Dr Michael Roberts. In his second-year Australian history course in 1990, Frank had encouraged me to read ‘old newspapers’. This was in an analogue era, well before Trove and digitised newspapers. Focusing on cartoons, I had dipped into microfilmed newspapers in the bowels of the old Macquarie University Library. I had spent a good deal more time there in my 1992 Honours year, as well as in the newspaper section of what is now the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room, researching how the press had portrayed Australian politician Dr HV Evatt.
During Honours I encountered Company of Heralds (1981), Gavin Souter’s superb history of the Fairfax media corporation. I was struck by the fact there was no equivalent for Australian Consolidated Press, and that the only biography of its founder, Sir Frank Packer (1906–1974), was a hagiography written while he was still alive. And so my Honours and PhD supervisor, Professor Duncan Waterson, suggested that I talk to a retired colleague, then the finest historian of the New South Wales press, about my interest in writing a biography of Sir Frank, or a history of ACP. The telephone conversation was dispiriting — with the best of intentions, the historian expressed concern that there was no ACP archive (as there was for Fairfax) and there were no known Packer family papers. The fearsome reputation of the intensely private Kerry Packer (Sir Frank’s son and heir, and the richest man in Australia) may also have been mentioned.
By early 1993, following a polite but dismissive letter from Kerry Packer’s office, I was increasingly concerned about how I would research aspects of his father’s private life. But Sir Frank’s public career, and his business, still seemed to have potential. At the very least, there would be ACP’s outlets themselves — led by the Australian Women’s Weekly, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and the Bulletin — to probe. As I began wading through oceans of microfilm, I convinced myself that a company history would be possible, with additional records available in the form of journalists’ and editors’ manuscript collections (many of them in the State Library), the records of journalists’ and printers’ unions, and regulatory material in the National Archives of Australia.
By mid-1993, having mined Gavin Souter’s book, and talked to him, I was also aware that there was relevant material in the Fairfax archive. It was hard to know how much, given I was in the early stages of working on the history of a rival company. But for me (and, I dare say, Gavin), the stories of the knights of the Sydney press — the Fairfaxes and the Packers — have always been imbricated and inseparable.
In July 1993 I wrote my first letter to the chief legal counsel and company secretary of Fairfax, Gail Hambly, requesting access to the collection. Within weeks I was walking from Central Station to Mountain Street, Ultimo, where the archive was housed, not far from Fairfax headquarters in Jones Street. The company’s first archivist, Eileen Dwyer, had recently retired, leaving her successor, Louise Preston, to continue compiling detailed listings of records. I occupied one of the two desks in the archive’s office, making notes in pencil, while Louise occupied the other.
As her guide to 1400 boxes emerged, it became abundantly clear that the Fairfax archive would be pivotal to my PhD thesis. The records of successive general managers (my favourite was RP Falkingham) would prove particularly valuable in recording the competition (and occasional collaborations) between Fairfax, ACP and their mastheads. The archive also contained the records of companies acquired by Fairfax, including Associated Newspapers Ltd, a corporate octopus founded in part by RC Packer, and which, through a daring deal (documented nowhere better than in the archive), seeded the creation of what became ACP in 1936.
In the book based on my thesis, The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire (1999), I acknowledged the debt I owed to the Fairfax archive. Some of the material I found there helped to flesh out my second book, a biography of Sir Frank. Meeting in the Library, the NSW Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography had decided to take a punt on a young historian by inviting me to write the major Packer entry. This undertaking, leading as it did to research on ancestry, schooling, sport, marriages and children, helped to finally convince me that a full-scale biography, encompassing the personal as well as the public, was viable.