Kim Williams: Former News Corp CEO has more surprises in store

Kim Williams is truly terrifying. Kim Williams is a pussy cat. Kim Williams hates himself. Kim Williams loves himself. Kim Williams is one of the most inspiring business leaders Australia has ever had. Actually, Kim Williams is a micromanaging control freak. Kim Williams was a national Lego champion at the age of 11. Kim Williams never, ever, addresses people by their nicknames. Kim Williams is seriously considering converting to Judaism. Luckily for Kim Williams, Kim Williams is already circumcised. Kim Williams' sixth-favourite film of all time is Mad Max 2. Kim Williams' home contains several thousand bottles of wine and eight TVs. Despite having recently undergone a spinal fusion and laminectomy, Kim Williams loves to dance. His father also loved to dance. Unfortunately, Kim and his father never got along. Meet Kim Williams. He's complicated.

In the book-lined library of his Queens Park home in Sydney's east, the 61-year-old Williams sits silently, his baby-soft forearms firmly crossed, his Kinder Surprise of a cranium tilted expectantly, as if awaiting some distant communication. It's difficult to know if he's doing it on purpose or not, but Williams does a truly excellent line in passive aggression, his resting expression somewhere between inquisitorial froideur and mild discomfort. On the desk behind him is a mug which reads: "Keep Calm and Stop Carrying On."

Once one of Australia's most visible CEOs, Williams has spent the past seven months in a state of uncharacteristic joblessness, having resigned as head of News Corp Australia last August. His impromptu departure capped 20 action-packed months, during which he attempted to remake Rupert Murdoch's Australian empire from the ground up, sacking editors, streamlining departments, and introducing what he saw as a badly needed "culture of accountability". He stressed the importance of online. He brought in consultants. He worked like a lunatic - "harder," says friend Steve Bracks, the former Victorian premier, "than he has ever worked on anything".

But he also made enemies, including Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of The Australian, and then Ten Network chairman Lachlan Murdoch, whom Williams had rather unwisely outbid in the 2012 battle for the National Rugby League's 2013 to 2017 broadcast rights.

"All jobs have their chicanes," Williams says now. "The degree to which you are successful in that position depends on how you navigate them."

People often describe Williams as "a good hater", with an elephantine capacity for nursing grudges. Yet he is also eminently practical. One of the first things he did on the day he resigned was sign a lease for a new office, a small space in Woollahra just 25 minutes' walk from his home. He then packed up his News Corp office - his papers and books, his Star Wars poster signed by George Lucas ("Kim, may the force always be with you!") - and headed for a nearby wine bar for what he describes as a "very convivial afternoon with old friends and colleagues".

Almost every day since then, he has faithfully reported to his private office, often arriving at 8am and working till eight or nine at night. "Work," he says, "is central to my view of the world." He has written. He has read. He has travelled. He has scored a gig as a commissioner for the Australian Football League - a part-time position that he began in February. And he has engaged in a period of "great personal and private reflection", focusing on what has through the years become for him "the most enduring source of intellectual and spiritual nourishment" - namely, Judaism.

"I grew up in a non-religious family," he says. "Our home, was, to all intents and purposes, without God." Despite or maybe because of this, he has always been drawn to "matters of the spirit", discovering Judaism at uni. "I just think it is a wonderful, wonderful faith."

It's clear that the idea of Williams turning Jewish is almost as odd to Williams as it is to everyone else. Ethnically, he is "about as Welsh as it gets". And yet he enjoys "a deep intensity of kinship" with Judaism. He likes, for instance, the way that most of the practice of the religion is in the home. He also likes Judaism's intellectual tradition, "the notion of a quest for understanding and enlightenment". The animating principles of Christianity are, he says, "repentance and forgiveness. But a Jewish life is more about a quest to be a good human being, to understand other human beings and have some connectedness with society as nourished from an understanding of a set of primary scriptures, both from a deity but also other scholars."

His friends have suggested he is about to convert, something he will neither confirm nor deny. He will say only that conversion requires "approval from a rabbinical court. Then you need to go through all the normal process of becoming a Jewish man, in terms of reading from the Torah, and in terms of, of ..."

In terms of what? "Well, I'm already a circumcised man," he says, relievedly. "In fact, my mother was always amused that I was circumcised by Doctor Dick."

Williams is a classically trained musician and composer who also happens to be one of Australia's most successful business leaders. He has composed sonatas and chamber concertos, and also managed in News Corp an $8.1 billion company with 10,000 staff. In a country that prefers its business barons to drink beer, own race horses and, if possible, win an America's Cup, this is an interesting combination.

"Australian corporate life has been fashioned by our experience on the farm, factory and mine," says former SBS managing director Malcolm Long. "Consequently, many Australian corporate leaders are a bit uncomfortable about how to regard the arts and culture and creativity. Kim has never had that uncomfortableness."

Williams gives generously to charity. He supports the arts with commissions and fellowships. ("Kim tends to put his hand in his pocket a lot," says his brother-in-law, Nathan Waks.) He has headed up everything from Musica Viva to the Sydney Opera House Trust, and was chief executive of the Australian Film Commission at the age of 31. His deathbed rescue of Foxtel, where he was CEO from 2001 to 2011, is the stuff of legend. "When Kim took the job the company was haemorrhaging money and there was speculation that it would ever be thus," says James Packer, whose Consolidated Media Holdings owned a 25 per cent stake in the company. "He got in there, turned it around and created a lot of shareholder value."

He is also famously complex, a perennial outsider, intellectually acute but emotionally obtuse, a polarising figure whose contradictory impulses frequently bleed into his career. Broadcaster Robyn Williams calls him a "pussy cat". Others are less benign. He's "Jekyll and Hyde", as one person put it, dogged by insecurity, elevated by intellect, tyrannised, intermittently, by paint-peeling temper tantrums, volcanic outbursts that leave him trembling, spittle-lipped, in tears. "He internalises to the point where you fear his whole head is going to explode," says one former News executive. "The pressure he brings himself under, let alone the target, is truly terrifying."

"Kim is a maker and a destroyer; he divides as much as he rules," says Phillip Adams, who worked with Williams at the Australian Film Commission. "Even as a success, there is something tragic about him."

Williams was born in 1952, and grew up in a three-bedroom brick house in West Ryde, in Sydney's north-west. At nine, his grandfather gave him a banjo, "a monstrous beast of an instrument" that he could hardly get his arms around. His mother enrolled him in lessons, but the teacher berated him for having soft fingers, sometimes pushing them into the strings until they bled.

At 12, Williams attended Marsden High School, where he befriended the music teacher, Richard Gill. "He has always been extremely demanding, not only of himself, but of others," says Gill, now an opera conductor and one of Williams' closest friends. "He gave me a test one day where he had prepared excerpts of 75 orchestral works, very small excerpts, on a tape recorder, and I had to identify every single one. He was 14."

Williams excelled at music, studying clarinet in the afternoons after school at the Sydney Conservatorium. He then won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study music at Sydney University, his progress briefly interrupted by the Vietnam War draft. (He went to court as a conscientious objector and defended himself, citing international human rights covenants and the Nuremberg judgments.)

Williams was close to his mother, Joan, but his father, David, essentially rejected him. "Basically, I don't think dad liked me very much," says Williams. "And I think that was his problem, but he made it my problem. It took me a long time to come to terms with it." David, who died in 2009 aged 83, was a senior figure at the Greater Union group - he would later be made a member of the Order of Australia for services to Australian cinema. An only child, David Williams was highly driven but self-absorbed, oscillating between fits of temper and emotional absence. He also competed mercilessly with Kim, resenting his son's success in the arts, which he considered "his space". "He never once in my life said 'Well done, son', " says Williams. "Never once."

When Williams was in his early 40s, he wrote his father a long letter. "You just reach a point where you have to stand up for yourself," he says. "In the letter, I pointed out that I'd sustained the relationship but that he hadn't rung me in 20 years." The two men agreed to meet for a meal. "I said, 'I get the message; I'm not going to do it any more.' My father was very unhappy with me having brought it to a head, because he was the sort of person who believed you should just bury all that stuff. After the meal, he said, 'Well, we don't need to talk about this any more,' and we never did."

Music was Williams' passion, but management was his métier. Following university, he worked in opera, at the Sydney Conservatorium, and at the Australia Council, where he had been made a foundation member of the music board at the age of 20. He then became general manager of Music Rostrum Australia, which in 1975 organised an Australian tour for the revered Italian composer Luciano Berio and his former wife and long time collaborator, the American soprano Cathy Berberian. At the end of the tour, the musicians invited Williams, who was then 23, to come work with them in Italy.

Berio was an archetypal Italian, with titanic appetites for food, wine, women and work. Berberian, then in her early 50s, was still glamorous and vampy, her talent undimmed. Though they'd long since divorced, Berio adored Berberian, whom he considered his muse. The two lived separately but jointly owned a summerhouse in Radicondoli, a 13th-century fortress town halfway between Florence and Siena. This is where Williams settled in, researching recitals, answering the phone, organising travel. "Cathy was one of the great artists of the 20th century," he says. "She had music written for her by over 40 different composers, including Stravinsky. Anything I could do was a privilege."

Berio would come and go, leaving young Kim in the house with Berberian. The relationship was, says Williams, "very engaged, very conversational, very easy, very natural, almost familial". At some point, however, Williams and Berberian fell in love. "It was very intense," Williams says now. It's not clear whether Berio knew what was going on: "I never asked him," Williams says. "Luciano was Cathy's soul mate, but she was able to bifurcate very easily."

One morning, though, without warning, Berberian told Williams that she no longer loved him. Distraught, Williams is said to have attempted suicide, not once, but twice. "I'm not going to talk about that," he says now. "I mean, you know, I had a very, very tough, youthful moment." He returned to Australia soon after, "not in the best shape", took "a lot of deep breaths, and got back in the saddle".

In Sydney, Williams joined Musica Viva; by 1980 he was the general manager. His talents were clear, as was his ambition. When the job as managing director of the ABC came up, he applied, despite being only 28. "Someone remarked that I was too young, and I said, 'But William Pitt ran Britain when he was 24! You can't be ageist about these things.' "

He didn't get the job, but Wendy McCarthy, who interviewed him, was so impressed she recommended Williams to Phillip Adams, who was then at the Australian Film Commission. Adams took him on, the two men forming a formidable team that besieged Canberra in a series of largely successful funding raids. "Kim had this incredible technocratic ability to write a 50-page report in 10 minutes," says Adams. "He beguiled bureaucrats and ministers."

Williams can be intensely charming. He is also a chameleon. Once, at News, in order to woo Queensland editor Peter Gleeson, whose hobby is dog racing, he flew him to Sydney and drove him 100km south to Dapto, where they had a night on the punt, eating $7.95 lasagne. As News' CEO, his tastes were curiously heterodox: he favoured the racy NT News, naming it News Corp's Brand of the Year in 2012, but disliked The Australian, sometimes disparaging it at private parties. (Williams says he "may have expressed frustration with the paper's [financial] losses" but denies openly criticising it.)

Despite his powers of persuasion, Williams has few friends in politics. "When he was at Foxtel, the crucial battle was getting changes to the anti-siphoning legislation," media commentator Margaret Simons says. "But Kim had not one significant win on it." Observers blame his temperament. He will advance a credible argument, then invariably overstep, become emotional, go personal, hector or condescend. "Crazy Kim" would pop up, as if through a trapdoor in the floor.

"Kim essentially hates himself," one former colleague says. "He hates the way he looks. It creates a lot of tension inside him." (Williams denies this.) Another person describes him as the "ultimate survivor" who has "lived on the edge for decades", a man whose paradoxical career - arts-mad aesthete-come-corporate heavy - has placed him perpetually at odds with himself. This dissonance became sharpest at News, where, despite his lifelong friendships with former judge Jim Spigelman and other upmarket Whitlamites, he became a Murdoch apologist, complete with the apparently mandatory attacks on the ABC.

This devotion to power is "the secret to his psyche", says the colleague. "He will attach himself to someone more important, like Rupert, and become a super loyal 2IC." He can be capricious with his own staff, however, lavishing them with praise or walloping them with emotion. "Kim cries easily, over many, many things," Nathan Waks says. "That knocks people off balance, because he's meant to be the hard businessman."

Such emotion has enriched Williams, but it has also exposed him. In May 2012, for instance, while a guest at media buyer Harold Mitchell's 70th birthday party at Crown Casino, he famously monstered Greg Hywood, CEO of Fairfax Media (publisher of Good Weekend), attacking him over comments Hywood had made about the state of the media. At one stage, Hywood was heard to say, "Kim, people are listening."

Williams has been married twice: his current wife is Cath Dovey, Gough Whitlam's daughter, whom he married in 1998. But his first marriage, in 1983, was to Kathy Lette, of Puberty Blues fame, a woman with whom he was "on any rational analysis, completely incompatible". (Williams' father arranged for the wedding to take place in Sydney's State Theatre, then ejected them at 3.45pm to make way for the afternoon session.)

"We had a great time," Lette says. "Kim was handsome, with these golden curls. He was romantic, too. On my 22nd birthday, he organised with my sister to sneak a string quartet into my bedroom so I would awaken to the strains of Bach." Ultimately, however, Lette wanted children, something Williams resisted. "It's important children be well loved and well understood," he says. But thanks to his father, Williams had "some issues" around parenthood. By the time he had come around, Lette had met someone else, the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

"Kathy left me on the 11th of November, 1988," he says, smiling wanly. "Unfortunately, I have been cursed with a very good memory."

Lette's departure devastated Williams, who lived in their house for another year. "But that wasn't good for me," he says. So he moved in with his friend and then managing director of the ABC, David Hill. "I was at David's place for about 10 months, living above an old carriage quarters out the back."

In 1991, Hill hired his friend to head up the ABC's pay-TV initiative, something Williams now describes as "without question my worst career moment". Williams was charged with recruiting staff and raising funds for the venture, which became known as Australian Information Media (AIM). The federal government put in $12.5 million, which went towards building state-of-the-art digital production studios at the ABC's Sydney base at Gore Hill. The rest of the money would come from a consortium that included Fairfax, US cable group Cox Communications, CNN and Viacom.

In 1993, however, Hill and Williams abruptly fell out. (Hill came to believe Williams was undermining him; Williams denies this, saying the issue was purely personal. "David and I have very different views on the world.") Williams stayed on at AIM, where his focus had shifted to finding a carrier for its programming. This had been proving problematic, so, in 1995, Williams approached Rupert Murdoch's soon-to-be-launched Foxtel. In the middle of the negotiations, however, Williams dropped a bombshell, announcing he was resigning from AIM to become CEO of Fox Studios, an entertainment complex that Murdoch had planned for the old Sydney Showgrounds.

Williams' departure was painted as the ultimate perfidy. ABC board member Rod Cameron called it a "disgrace". Phillip Adams likened his former confrère to a rat leaving a sinking ship. Matters weren't helped much when, just months later, Murdoch pulled the plug, leaving AIM without a distributor. (The service subsequently folded.) "It's such a crock of shit to in any way blame me for that," Williams says now.

He even wrote Adams a letter, telling him, "You know f...ing nothing about what you are talking about."

In any case, Williams' move to the house of Murdoch proved long and fruitful. By the time he resigned as News Corp CEO in August 2013, he had spent 18 years under the Sun King's wing. By the end, the two men talked frequently, up to four times a week, sometimes daily. Yet all things come to an end. "It's the people I miss most," Williams says of his time at News. Since his resignation, he and Rupert haven't spoken once.

Williams' downfall at News was red meat for connoisseurs of corporate intrigue. Insiders describe the company's Holt Street HQ in Sydney as one might the Ottoman court, riven by resentments and poisonous power struggles, and lorded over by resident Machiavel and newsroom silverback, Chris Mitchell. As The Australian's editor-in-chief, Mitchell enjoys enormous power at News, thanks to his direct line to Rupert Murdoch. It was Mitchell, along with Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker, who made Williams' life a misery, undermining his authority and disregarding his edicts. Williams, for his part, found it "bizarre" that Mitchell's newspaper was allowed to lose around $30 million a year. "There was just no accountability."

Yet Williams was, as ever, his own worst enemy. He could be bafflingly impolitic, employing management consultants while simultaneously sacking journalists. He handed enormous power to the human resources department, many of whose members had zero experience in media. Some of his initiatives - centralising back office operations, for example - made sense. Others, such as having a single advertising sales force for every state, proved disastrous, precipitating a free-fall collapse of advertising revenues. "It just stripped out all the local advertising from around the country," says Neil Breen, former editor of The Sunday Telegraph.

His editorial and executive level makeover was also having a crippling effect at The Herald & Weekly Times in Melbourne, where Williams had given most of the senior jobs to the suburban network, effectively neutering state editorial director Peter Blunden. According to one former News high up, "this seriously rankled Janet Calvert-Jones [Rupert Murdoch's sister], who as the chair of The Herald & Weekly Times had devoted much of her life to the pastoral care of the executives and the people on the floor".

It was William's clash with Lachlan Murdoch, however, that ultimately sealed his fate. Lachlan had long been a supporter of Williams; it was Lachlan who had elevated Williams to the head of Foxtel in 2001, and it was Lachlan who had lobbied his father to appoint him CEO of News Corp. But the 2012 battle over the NRL's 2013-17 broadcasting rights would end all that. As chairman of the ailing Network Ten, Lachlan coveted the rights, which he saw as the central plank in his grand plan to rebuild the station. But he hadn't counted on Williams, who, as head of News and Foxtel, teamed-up with Channel Nine to outbid him at the 11th hour.

Not only that but, in an effort to get his bid over the line, Williams had agreed to relinquish News' "first and last rights" over the NRL, options they held till 2027. The "first and lasts" were uncommonly powerful, effectively giving News the final word on NRL broadcast rights for free-to-air, pay TV, online, even technology that had yet to be invented. William's willingness to surrender them was seen by Murdoch as a deep betrayal, as his one-time-friend doing anything he could to stymie Ten's bid. "Lachlan burst a pipe over it," says one News executive. "He went to Rupert and tried to call for Kim's head ... He totally froze Kim out."

The immensity of the challenge at News meant Williams needed friends, but he ended up with precious few, either in management or the newsroom, and certainly not among the Murdochs. "Kim's IQ is off the scale," says Phillip Adams. "You're talking about an immensely bright person, but not necessarily an immensely intelligent one. There's a difference."

Where Williams goes next is anyone's guess. His role as AFL commissioner is largely unpaid, but he has other commercial offers that he can't talk about yet. (In March, he signed a deal to write a book with Melbourne University Press). "I say no to a lot of things," he says. "I find it most difficult. But I just want to make sure I have a portfolio of activities that keeps me interested, a mix of directorships, pro bono stuff." He still loves the media, but his severance from News included a non-compete clause, barring him from the industry for a year.

The last time I talk to him, he's just come back from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's recital of Beethoven's 7th. Beethoven is one of Williams' favourite composers. He loves his adventurousness, his boundary-pushing; he also loves his resilience. When Williams was 20 he made a pilgrimage to Beethoven's studio in Vienna. "He had hereditary syphilis," Williams says. "That's how he went deaf. But he never stopped working. It was very touching to visit the place where he composed, because there are dents in the piano where his hearing horns were rested on the hood. That's how he worked, right up to the end, when he was desperately trying to he hear what was going on.

"Can you imagine! What an amazing chap."

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The story Kim Williams: Former News Corp CEO has more surprises in store first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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