Confessions of a journalist: The night I hit Kerry Packer with a six by four

Veteran journalist Dr Douglas Golding has confessed to hitting Kerry Packer with a “6 by 4” timber post in a speech about religion and the media.

The link to religion is that the “Battle of Queen Street”, between thugs hired by the Packers and Murdochs– and in which the young Golding took part– was over who would control the “Anglican Press”, a printing plant in a prime location near Sydney’s Central Railway Station.

It produced the memorable headline “Knights Son in City Brawl” in the Daily Mirror with a picture of Clyde Packer (Kerry’s older bother) tossing a one-legged clergyman into the street.

“In June 1960, Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax were competing to develop suburban papers”, Golding explained. “I was working for the gadfly Francis James at the Anglican Press in our plant in Queen Street Chippendale, within a shout of Central station an ideal location”. Golding was addressing the St James Institute, a ministry of the St James King Street Anglican church, Sydney.

Francis James was one of the great characters of the Australia media. In addition to running the left leaning Anglican Press, James while working for the Sydney Morning Herald had routinely filed his stories from his Rolls Royce parked outside the paper’s offices and later became a prisoner in Peking during the cold war.

“Packer had brought in thugs to take over the printing plant. The young Rupert Murdoch and Frank Browne (a boxer and sports editor from the Mirror) gathered a team to take it back.

“My job was to create a rumpus at the front while Frank Browne broke in through the toilet at the back. The production editor and I were armed with a 6 by 4. Kerry Packer opened the front door and got our 6 by 4 in the front.

Later a reporter asked Francis what had gone on.

“’A Brawl? You must be mistaken. Browne and I have been studying Psalm 35’. The reporter did not know his psalms. Psalm 35 begins:

Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me.
2 Take up shield and armor;
arise and come to my aid.
3 Brandish spear and javelin[a]
against those who pursue me.
Say to me,
“I am your salvation.”

Much later after starting six suburban papers in Canberra, Golding sold out only to discover he was selling to a syndicate headed by Kerry Packer. “I did not remind him we had already met—in Queen Street, Chippendale”.

Golding offers a biting critique of the media, arguing that religion (amongst other coverage) is affected by the fact that commercial news media are businesses. However he cautions its critics: “Before we condemn the media we should understand how it works” but added, “most journalists simply do not ‘get’ religion”.

Here are Golding’s key points on how the media works:

  • “Chris McGillion, then of the SMH, argued in a Eureka St article in 1995 that good news makes bad copy. News values and religious values are in conflict with each other. Religious conflict makes better news that religious harmony.
  • “What happened yesterday is not news. Neither is what happened 2000 years ago.
  • “Negativity is more newsworthy than positivity. A corrupt politician is more newsworthy than an upright one. A priest abusing children is more newsworthy than a priest who cares for children.
  • “Conflict is the chief news value. But most editors have a secret news value… sex.
  • “A corrupt town planner may be news, but a corrupt town planner sleeping with an official is page one.
  • “I am saying that news is a manufactured commodity, the product of many skilled hands. Everyday each newspaper, every TV station, every radio station is bombarded with recorded news stories. They are fitted into a news bulletin, a page. There is more news on Thursday than Tuesday because there are more ads.
  • “The business of media is not news. The business of media is business – making money.
  • “The media are market dependent, they need consumers. (and stories are picked to make sure they have consumers)
  • “Today there are fewer reporters and sub-editors to check their stories. Often there is only one reporter from Australian Associated Press. We often get one point of view. There is only one specialist religion reporter left in Australia, in Melbourne’s The Age.

The eagle eye of Golding spotted that on the SMH website the report of Archbishop Peter Jensen’ s final Synod (church parliament) address was credited to the crime reporter.