Kerry Stokes is one of our last old-style media moguls, but he's no Lord Copper.
With controlling stakes in Australia's highest rating TV network, Channel Seven, the nation's second-biggest magazine group, Pacific Magazines (publisher of New Idea), and The West Australian, Western Australia's only daily newspaper, the 71-year old tycoon should be a real power in the land.
But the one-time street kid and TV repairman has never been interested in throwing his weight around in the same way as Rupert or Big Kerry. And he told The Power Index last week, "I don't believe I have power. If I did, I might be tempted to use it."
However, Stokes does mix it with his fellow proprietors: he gave James Packer palpitations two years ago when he muscled in on Consolidated Media Holdings (which owns 50 per cent of Fox Sports and 25 per cent of Foxtel), and he may be about to ruffle Lachlan Murdoch's feathers at Channel Ten, where he has just bought a 2.1 per cent share.
He has also intervened in his newspapers, TV stations and magazines in the past. Back in the 1990s, Stokes took a close interest in what his TV network produced and desperately wanted to be proud of it. The expensive and short-lived current affairs program, Witness– which I worked on – was very much his baby.
He was less gloriously involved when Seven pulled a Today Tonight expose of Victorian premier Jeff Kennett's share dealings in 1996, minutes before it went to air. Stokes claimed to know nothing about this decision, but later dismissed journalists responsible for the story, which Seven's managing director Gary Rice believed could do the network "enormous damage in Victoria".
In 2002, he intervened even more directly at New Idea, giving the order to pulp 100,000 copies, without consulting its editor. The magazine was set to splash a story on James Packer's tryst with a British glamour model known as 'the Pleasure Machine'. Stokes, who was in the midst of delicate negotiations with the Packer family over ownership of TV Week told The Power Index he was concerned they would be sued.
More recently, in 2007, Stokes flexed his muscles at The West Australian by buying a 20 per cent stake and gaining control of the board, which then sacked editor Paul Armstrong. However, there was widespread support for this move. Two years earlier, WA Attorney General Jim McGinty had branded the newspaper "the nation's most inaccurate and dishonest", and Labor Premier Alan Carpenter had called urgently for Armstrong to be fired.
"The West Australian seemed to be at war with everyone," Stokes told The Power Index last week, "its suppliers, distributors and readers, and the public service." At the time, Stokes claimed it was about "bringing the newspaper back to a standard we want it to be in this state".
Some wish the media mogul would now take a similar approach to Seven's Today Tonight. But with David Leckie still in overall charge of his network, we're not sure he'd dare.
There are other ways in which Stokes fails to fit the mould: he's tall but he stoops; he struggles to look smart, and he doesn't try to dominate the room like most alpha males. Friendly, unassuming and slightly sleepy, with a husky voice, he's a dead ringer for Colombo in the TV detective series of that name.
But you don't get to be worth $2 billion without being tough, and he's certainly not a man to cross in business, as his pay-TV rivals, Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch and Telstra discovered when they ganged up on him (as he saw it). "Stokes is a man who has never allowed the odds to dictate terms to him and he will not be denied what he sees as his due," John Birmingham observed in The Monthly in 2006.
Born John Althorpe 71 years ago in wartime Melbourne, Stokes is the son of Melbourne barmaid who gave him up for adoption. He never met his mother and never knew his father.
"My background was very difficult, very hard, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody," he told the ABC in 2000. "I spent some time on the street. I had lots of different occupations and obviously lots of different experiences."
After a spell in an orphanage, three-year-old "John" was adopted by a devout Catholic couple, who changed his name to Kerry. Decent but dirt poor, they gave the church what little they earned. Matt Stokes moved the family around Australia looking for work; his wife Irene made thistle soup when times were hard; and Kerry earned a few bob catching rabbits and selling the skins.
At school with the Christian Brothers the future billionaire got the strap because his reading and spelling were so bad. They could see he was bright, and thought he was lazy, but in fact he was dyslexic. He quit at 14 and went off to join a shearing team. When he came back a year later his adoptive parents had vanished. It was two years before he found them again.
It made him hard. It made him humble. It also gave him sympathy for the underdog. And that's still how Stokes sees himself, despite mansions in Perth, Sydney and Broome, a condo in Colorado, (where he employs two full-time ski instructors in the season), and a 36-metre super yacht, Antipodean, that steams round the world stopping at the best diving spots.
So how did he make his pile? At 21, Stokes was fixing TV aerials in Perth's fast-growing suburbs, and married to his first wife, Dot (he is now on his fourth). But he soon saw he could make more money selling land for the new houses to be built on. So in 1963 he did what Alan Bond had already begun, and started flogging real estate. He advertised his subdivisions on TV and got a huge response, learning his first lesson in media power.
One of his first employees, Chris Bailey, who sold land for him, thought him "a beaut fellow" and "a good athlete" who "was good at whatever sport he tried".
Before long, he was teaming up with American builder Jack "The Bandit" Bendat to build housing estates and shopping centres. Many millions of dollars later, someone suggested they should buy the TV station in Bunbury to promote their new centre there. Stokes supposedly replied, "Why the fuck would I buy a TV station in Bunbury?"
But by 1970 they had, and Bunbury became the base for their Golden West TV network. Soon, Stokes was also buying Channel Seven stations in Canberra and Adelaide, the Channel Ten affiliate in Perth, and radio stations in regional Victoria.
Like Kerry Packer, he was smart enough to sell out in the 1980s boom – to Frank Lowy for $400 million – and like Packer, he was also smart enough to buy back in, grabbing a 20 per cent share in the Seven Network in 1995, barging his way onto the board and seizing control. That's when Stokes hit the big time.
Six years later, in delivering the Andrew Olle Lecture, Stokes expressed high ideals about the media's role in society. "If we get it right," he said, "people in the media can assist in shaping a better future for Australia."
But Seven's Today Tonight hardly fills that role. "I have never seen a more mendacious, deceptive and inflammatory piece of 'journalism'", Media Watch host Jonathon Holmes said after a recent TT report on asylum seekers "living in luxury" at taxpayers' expense.
Another critic describes the program as "cancerous", "amoral", "sensationalist", "sordid" and a "disgrace".
Yet Stokes has done nothing – as far as we know – to ensure TT behaves more responsibly. He told The Power Index "There are going to be some [reports] that you obviously would rather not have happened ... [but] TT plays a very important part in the media landscape of television ... TT is one of the top two or three most-watched programs each night, 350 days a year."
Stokes is a fascinating, complex, likeable man. He gives generously to charity, has an 8000-piece art collection, which he's happy to lend out, and buys military medals, which he gives to the nation. But he was famously tough as a property developer, and some who knew him then say his soft image is precisely that: an image.
As to whether he carries political clout, there's no doubt he does. His recent complaints about the carbon tax didn't get much traction. But in February 2010 Senator Stephen Conroy handed Australia's commercial TV networks a $250 million gift in the form of reduced licence fees. Shortly before the decision was announced, the communications minister was Stokes' guest for a day on the Colorado ski slopes at Beaver Creek.
What do we read into that? Nothing major. But Australian politicians always like to keep media moguls happy, even when those tycoons don't use their papers and TV networks as a battering ram.
This article first appeared on The Power Index on December 12. Republished with permission.