In former News Corp chief Kim Williams, Rosemary Desmond discovers a brilliant, complex man who, at 62, has a whole lot more to give.
The term ’Renaissance man’ is these days often used to describe those who excel in a number of different fields. If you accept that definition, the multi-talented Kim Williams fits the description well.
Always a high achiever, by the age of 11 Williams had read the complete works of Charles Dickens and had been crowned national Lego champion.
As a classically-trained musician and composer, Williams also became a conscientious objector who refused to register for National Service in the Vietnam War.
He was facing jail when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam - who some years later was to become his father-in-law - abolished conscription in 1972.
In 2006, Williams was appointed a member of the Order of Australia (AM) but despite his long held passion for music and the arts, it was in management that he made his name. The former head of Foxtel and CEO of News Ltd (which later became News Corp) during one of its most challenging periods, Williams fell out with other executives in 2013 and resigned abruptly in August 2013 after less than two years in the top job. And despite their former close working relationship, he hasn’t spoken to News Corp supremo Rupert Murdoch since the day he left.
You were headed for Sydney’s Long Bay Jail after refusing to register for military service. Can you tell me about that?
I was a draft resister during the Vietnam War back in 1970 through ’71 and ’72 and I had a long correspondence then with my local member who was the then Prime Minister Billy McMahon. I was saved from going to jail by the election of the Whitlam government because I was going to jail on the (following) Monday for 18 months. But mum had invited the priest from the jail to come and see her and she was exhorting him to make me the leader of the prison band when I went into jail. She was a very, very good woman. But I was saved from going to jail because one of the first options Whitlam took was to cease all prosecutions against draft resisters and to rescind any criminal offences that people had under the National Services Act and to release all those that were actually in jail for non-compliance with that Act.
You bailed out of music administration early in your career…
I left music administration first to go the Australian Film Commission (AFC) which I ran for just under five years and then I went and set up Southern Star Entertainment which is the company that produced Blue Heelers and Water Rats and a number of other very popular programs and I went from there to the ABC. But when I went to the AFC it was a very significant change because I was running a government statutory authority which was something with which I had no familiarity and I was about 39 and so it was a very steep learning curve for me.
If you could come back in another life, would you want to become a professional musician?
I would want to come back either as a cellist or as a physicist. The cello is my favourite instrument and the Bach Cello Suites are probably my favourite pieces of music in all of the literature for solo instruments. Music has captivated me for quite a long time because it is one of the most advanced areas of creativity in human endeavour. (In physics), people like Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer are real role models in terms of this curiosity and quest to discover and learn that drive many of the best elements in human history.
What was it like going from being one of Australia’s most high profile CEOs to being out of a job?
That was a very abrupt and rather unwelcome experience but when you’ve been in a job where there is never enough time to get everything that needs to be done, done, to going to a position where you have literally nothing on your agenda it’s a very abrupt adjustment and it takes some time to get used to it and to actually confront it. What I did was to take an office immediately and make sure I went there every day and get on with the job. I’ve no patience for self-pity in any way, shape or form and so I just started getting on with the next phase of my life.
I believe that you haven’t spoken to Rupert Murdoch since you left News?
No, we haven’t had a conversation since I left News. I don’t think it’s very surprising. Rupert and I had reached a point of what I would describe as ‘irreconcilable differences’. He’s the executive chairman of the company and so I offered a circuit breaker and said: ‘Clearly you and I have a difference of agreement and it’s an argument that I cannot win. I’m not going to change and you are not going to change, so it looks to me like I should go’.
And now are you looking to become a consultant or a board member?
I’ve been doing some teaching at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and I’ve accepted several not-for-profit unpaid board directorships, I’ve accepted some private board directorships and I’m in discussion on a couple of other positions and I’ve done a bit of private consulting as well.
Do you think that in looking for work, your age is against you?
I think that in Australia, in marked distinction from places like the United States, people disqualify people above the age of 60 from a large number of roles. It is wholly impractical and deeply inappropriate for people in their later years who have had the benefit of a lot of experience and have lived through many trials and tribulations, both in life and in enterprise. In Europe and America, they would often be seen as being at their most valuable whereas in Australia they are seen as - not always – but they are seen as being disqualified. It is quite odd.
Do you feel in any way responsible for declining levels of News Corp’s revenues?
I inherited settings that were on a very steep downward decline and required some fairly severe interventions and redirections. I make no apology for anything I did. The fact that the company has chosen a different path after I’ve gone does not seem to have redirected any of the outcomes they are experiencing. They are still experiencing a significant continuing decline that is affected by all digital technology.
Do you think newspapers still have a future or will people increasingly get their news from the internet and social media?
I think the public have voted with their feet in terms of having a marked preference for the immediacy that digital technology provides. There will be a continuing acceleration in consumption from digital media because it is immediate, it’s always ‘on’ and always available and in many instances, it enables you to share it with your community of friends in a way that people find very attractive. Consumers are in charge now and consumers make those decisions and companies need to listen more closely to consumers and to understand their preferences.
You’ve been reported as saying that Coalition ministers bullied you. Can you name names?
I’ve always been someone that plays the ball, not the man, but in a couple of instances, back in the early 2000s there were a couple of memorably severe exchanges I had with ministers at that time. But the most colourful exchanges I had were with Labor during the Rudd and Gillard years. I had a memorably terrible relationship with (former Communications Minister) Stephen Conroy.
You were once married to Kathy Lette and she introduced you to her best friend Catherine Dovey, daughter of Gough and Margaret Whitlam (nee Dovey) who became your second wife…
When Kathy left me I was pretty devastated. Catherine was already a very close family friend and so we just continued seeing each other as platonic friends until about five years later, our friendship actually blossomed into a romance. Catherine was probably Kathy’s closest friend, so there’s a kind of weird circularity about the whole thing.
Do people throw the ‘Cath and Kim’ joke at you?
We’ve had it all our married lives but the person who prosecuted the joke more than anybody was dear Gough. When we were all together at public events, Gough would say: ‘and of course, I am accompanied by my dear, dear, family - Cath and Kim’, which used to make Catherine very cross.
Why did you have your personal genome sequenced by the Garvan Institute?
I was invited because of a pre-existing (medical) condition and an existing relationship with the Garvan Institute. It was fascinating. I think genomics will change the whole course of medicine in a way that people haven’t even begun to understand let alone contemplate because it will mean that instead of medicine being geared to one approach for everybody, it will be about personalisation in the nature of health care particularly in the way in which drug doses for people are calibrated to their individual biochemistries. It will mean that people are able to calibrate the way in which medical therapies are delivered that are actually uniquely relevant to each and every individual patient. It will also mean the most amazing financial benefits in terms of getting costs in health care down. It will be the biggest revolution in health care since the advent of antibiotics.
Are you contemplating converting to Judaism?
Spirituality is something that is very prominent in my aspirational needs. I have always been a very keen student in matters of religion and philosophy and of the various mainstream faiths, the one that I have quite a personal resonance with is Judaism. And some of my genome has conditions that are only related to the Sephardic Jewish community. It’s fascinating.
At 62 what now for Kim Williams?
I intend to be a substantial policy advocate for the disadvantaged in education, I intend to be an absolutely indefatigable advocate for the importance of music from the earliest outset in education, I intend to become an increasingly vocal advocate for issues attaching to the elderly because I think the two great minorities in our society – and who are in many ways voiceless – are the very young and the very old.