James Packer's Nine Network last night used its flagship current affairs program to spoil a critical story about the secretive church of Scientology on the rival Seven Network.
The executive producer of A Current Affair last night denied it had screened the soft story about Scientology, which Mr Packer is known to observe, in support of the Nine proprietor.
However, Darren Wick admitted A Current Affair had changed its story schedule to air the segment at the same time the show’s arch rival Today Tonight ran a critical piece on the church.
“We understand you would be looking at the James Packer connection. But it doesn’t filter down to us at all. I’ve never even had a conversation with him, full stop,” Wick said.
ACA reporter Howard Gipps’s story was drawing inspiration from a US ABC Nightline segment, Wick said.
ACA’s story started with BBC reporter John Sweeney’s now-infamous outburst at his Scientology minder Tommy Davis, which gained international notoriety this week.
In his piece, Gipps referred to both as “nutters”, before moving quickly to a scene from a Scientology documentary.
“Now for the first time the real story, the video John Sweeney left out of his report,” Gipps said, cutting to a church-shot scene of Sweeney yelling at celebrity Scientologist John Travolta at a movie premiere last year.
Seven news and current affairs director Peter Meakin last night said Mr Packer’s involvement in Scientology made the story more marketable.
“We would have run it irrespective of who is a member,” Meakin said.
“(Singer) Kate Ceberano, who has a recent history with Seven, is also a member.
“There has been a great deal of interest in the organisation for years.”
But “I can’t imagine James Packer ringing up A Current Affair and asking them to do a positive story about Scientology.
“I can imagine ACA wanting to do a story which would discredit the TT story.
“And the Scientologists would have opened their doors to someone who was going to run the counter-argument.
“I know James a little; I knew his father quite well. It was not the sort of games Kerry played.
“They would have been at pains to take some of the sting out of the Today Tonight when it comes to credibility and pulling power.
“That would have been more the motivation than propping up James Packer’s beliefs.”
The Church of Scientology sent a camera crew to shadow Sweeney during the making of his documentary, which aired on the BBC this week.
Ceberano and James Packer “fly the flag here in Australia”, Gipps said.
It was ACA’s lead story, taking precedence over its heavily promoted Bali Nine/Schapelle Corby exclusive, and was the second time ACA had covered the story this week, with the Sweeney-Davis shouting match first aired on Tuesday.