Columnist at The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph
Born in: Wewak, Papua New Guinea
Friends: Tom Switzer | Rupert Murdoch
Home Town: Sydney
You can accuse Piers Akerman of many things, but hubris isn't one of them. News Limited's rotund reactionary has no tickets on himself as a powerful player in Australia.
"I don't think journalists shift opinions," Akerman tells The Power Index. "Maybe in their own minds."
Seventeen years after he began penning columns for The Daily Telegraph, Akerman remains one of the loudest voices in a conservative chorus that dominates the airwaves and opinion pages in this country. Although he regards blogging as a "joke", his posts attract 400 comments on average and more than 700 on a good day. His devotees go wild when he lays into the Gillard government (a "stinking ruin"), multiculturalism (a "failure"), the ABC (the "audio-visual arm of the extreme Green left") and gay marriage (as absurd as letting a man marry his goat).
Labor MP Anthony Albanese and conservative historian Gerard Henderson singled him out for inflaming hostility towards Australian Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He played a key role in hyping up the 2009 Climategate emails as proof that man-made climate change is a hoax. And last year he and Alan Jones led the charge against the prosecution of Australian soldiers for manslaughter in Afghanistan.
In his maiden speech to parliament, David Clarke, the NSW Liberal right-wing powerbroker, said Akerman "articulates what the majority of the New South Wales electorate thinks. Rare is the occasion when I find myself in disagreement with him".
But his influence is waning.
Besides appearing twice weekly in the Tele, only The Mercury, a small-circulation newspaper in Hobart, publishes him, giving his column around 760,000 print readers a week according to Roy Morgan sectional readership data. Nothing to sniff at, for sure, but its a readership dwarfed by that of fellow Labor-bashers Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine.
And though he's a regular on Q&A, Insiders and Alan Jones' show, Akerman's public performances lack the spark and mastery of detail that make Bolt and David Marr such effective cultural warriors. He's prone to embarrassing stumbles – such as when he bagged Rupert Murdoch's 102-year-old mother, Dame Elisabeth, for being too old to speak out on climate change.
"Did you see him on Insiders the other day?" asked one senior Liberal. "He was a bumbling, stumbling mess. If you're not smart, then you don't influence public debate. That's why I don't rate Piers Akerman."
Recent attempts to set the agenda have flopped. In the two months leading up to the 2007 election, Akerman wrote 11 articles trying to ignite interest in the "Heiner Affair" (aka "Shreddergate") and Kevin Rudd's role in it. No one in the media – except Alan Jones – took the bait. Even News Limited stablemate The Australian dismissed it as a non-story and a conspiracy theory.
The perception that he's too partisan – a Liberal Party stooge, rather than an independent conservative – has also undermined his influence.
"He's basically a spent force," says a verteran journalist who has known Akerman for many years. "Life has taken its toll on Piers."
But what a fascinating life it's been.
Born in Papua New Guinea and raised in Perth, Akerman began his career as an 18-year-old cadet at The West Australian.
Hard as it is to believe, he was then a committed unionist and left-winger. As a 21-year-old he signed an advertisement claiming that Australia's involvement in Vietnam had sent the nation "careering into another cesspool of American imperial politics".
Although the oft-repeated claim that he was a Maoist is, according to Akerman, "a great myth".
"I did sleep with a Maoist once," he hastens to add.
Despite their (then) differing politics, Rupert Murdoch regarded him as one of his company's greatest assets. Energetic, ambitious and curious, Akerman was a born newspaperman. By 23 he was in New York reporting for Murdoch publications in Australia and the UK. Stints as foreign editor at The Australian and The Times in London followed, then a gig editing The Advertiser in Adelaide.
As he moved up the corporate ladder, his politics veered to the right -- a gradual transition rather than the result of any conservative epiphany, he says. Greater maturity simply produced a more conservative outlook.
In 1990 he was handed a gargantuan task: merging morning Melbourne tabloid The Sun News-Pictorial and afternoon broadsheet The Herald into one paper, The Herald Sun.
To this day, Akerman defends his Herald Sun editorship as a commercial and journalistic success.
But former colleague Stephen Mayne, who went on to found Crikey.com.au, says few who worked there fondly remember the Akerman era.
"His personal conduct was appalling. He was a bully and he was misogynistic. He abused people; he drank too much. Morale went through the floor."
Ex-Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie says Akerman – who ran a famous front-page editorial slamming the performance of Joan Kirner's Labor government – gave the Herald Sun a tone that was too partisan and aggressive for Melbourne readers.
Yet nothing could stop the Akerman Express. Not even accusations of harassment (in 1991 five former employees told The Age's Caroline Wilson that they had witnessed Akerman s-xually harass female staff members).
"Rupert Murdoch has a long tendency of favouring broad characters who will provide him with unwavering loyalty," says Mayne. "Piers is a classic of the genre."
(The affection, it should be noted, is mutual. Akerman says the ageing mogul has done more for Australia than any other living human being: "He's one of the most brilliant people I've ever met.")
In 1993 peripatetic Akerman was sent to Washington and appointed vice-president of Fox News despite having no television experience. But almost as quickly it began, his time there was up. According to Newsday, he was dismissed after a "screaming, shouting fight with a woman producer from New York". Akerman denies such an event ever took place and says he and wife, Suzanne, wanted to raise their two young daughters in Australia.
The former firebrand has mellowed over the years. News Limited insiders praise him for his generosity in mentoring young journalists. Most who meet him – even if they find his opinions repugnant – rate him as charming, well read and good company. He has helped put out several bushfires around Sydney's northern beaches over the past 14 years as president of the West Pittwater Rural Fire Brigade.
Although his detractors would like to see the back of him, the avid yachtsman has no plans quite yet to sail off into the sunset. And getting the boot is no concern – at least while his biggest fan is running the show at News Limited. The only problem: no one, not even Rupert Murdoch, lives forever.