Nine publisher says he was not contacted by Peter Costello over Nine’s Crown coverage

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age’s publisher,James Chessell, has told staff at the Nine newspapers that he was not contacted by the Nine chairman, Peter Costello, in relation to the group’s award-winning coverage of money laundering at Crown casino.

“I never heard a word from Peter Costello about Crown Unmasked before, during or after publication/broadcast,” Chessell said in an email to staff on Monday morning, after both he and the Nine chairman were the subject of an email attack by billionaire James Packer.

Chessell was responding to reports in the Australian which aired several emails sent from Packer in late July to numerous people in the media and to other media groups.

Until recently, Packer was the major shareholder in Crown, which was at the centre of allegations of money laundering and ties with junkets associated with organised crime which were the subject of a series of articles and a 60 Minutes program, Crown Unmasked, by Age investigative reporter Nick McKenzie. The revelations prompted three separate inquiries in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia into Crown’s licensing and operations.

Related: As Crown’s Sydney casino opens, Australia’s gambling venues still attract those trying to launder money | Alex Simpson

While Packer said in the emails the story was the “best story of the year” and McKenzie “definitely knew more about what was really happening at Crown than I did”, he accused both Chessell and Costello of hypocrisy.

Packer alleged in the emails Costello had acted as a secret lobbyist for him and Crown in 2011 and had been paid $300,000 by Packer. He accused Costello of “deceiving the Nine Entertainment board” about the alleged relationship.

Packer alleged Costello’s brief was to get him closer to the then Victorian gaming minister, Michael O’Brien.

A spokesperson for Nine said Costello had been a financial adviser to Consolidated Press Holdings, Packer’s private company, for a year in 2011, before he became a director of Nine and was not involved in lobbying. Crown had its own lobbyist, she said. O’Brien told the Australian he was not lobbied by Costello.

Chessell made a passing reference in his email to Packer’s mental health.

During his appearance at the Bergin Inquiry into Crown in 2020, Packer revealed that he was suffering from bipolar disorder. He has also spent time in a mental health clinic in Boston and over recent years has largely withdrawn from business life.

But in July, Packer told the Sydney Morning Herald he was much better and had stopped taking his medications.

“I’m feeling really well and happy,” Packer told the publication from his luxury $250m cruise ship IJE, three months after he reportedly stopped taking “seven different mood-altering drugs prescribed to me by my doctors”.

Chessell told staff: “I’ve received a blizzard of correspondence from Packer since he took exception to something we published in late June. After trying to engage with him at first – which clearly didn’t work – I’ve ignored almost all of it.

“I received another dozen emails from Packer last night. In the past he has copied in executives from competitors such as Seven and News. I hope he genuinely does make peace with Crown Unmasked and I wish him all the best,” he said.

“As Executive Editor I backed Crown Unmasked to the hilt, pushed for it to be a co-pro with 60 Minutes and backed our robust defence of those stories when Crown launched an (ultimately failed) PR campaign (supported by News Corp) to discredit us. Working with Nick, Batch, Kirsty and Grace was a highlight.”

Comment has been sought from Packer’s media representative.