This article appeared in The Australian Tuesday 15 February 2000 p15
When Harry got savvy:
some of the celebrity of
has rubbed off on the agent himself.
The Miller's Tale
He has a reputation as a man who knows how to do business.
Elisabeth Wynhausen describes her first-hand
experience of the small print
I HADN'T expected any complications when I telephoned to ask Harry M. Miller for an interview. I hadn't expected complications because I was taking an angle he might have chosen himself. People say he is the best deal-maker in Australia - a reputation he has tirelessly promoted. It seemed logical to ask him to flesh out the process, explaining in detail how he makes his deals. For one thing, the deals Miller made for his client Alan Jones were in the news, as the Australian Broadcasting Authority concluded its "cash-for-comment" inquiry.
For another, the hope of finding a fresh angle on a familiar public figure was sharpened by the discovery that Good Weekend, a Fairfax publication, was already on the story.
I left a message. He called back. "Why are you harassing me?" he bellowed over the speakerphone. Miller is deaf. Just how deaf is a matter of conjecture. His friends and clients believe he contrives to be deafer at some times than others.
In any case, he was still bellowing. A day or two later he told me over the speakerphone that his former wife, Wendy Miller, had said of him that "his greatest competitive edge is his silence". That was one of his techniques as a deal-maker, he said. It was hard to imagine. He had stopped accusing me of harassing him, only to attack my manners.
Why hadn't I wished him happy new year, he yelled. It didn't bother me. I am used to conversational hit-and-run for, like Miller, I am a Jew. "It's not your new year and it's not mine either," I said, figuring that it wouldn't hurt to soften him up a little. A minute more and I might have added that Meyer Lansky, a financier for the mob, once said: "A Jew has a hard time in this life."
But in a lightning change of tone that proved typical, Miller was telling an old joke about a minister, a priest and a rabbi. Then he got down to business.
He sounded interested in the prospect of talking about his deals - but not too interested, naturally. The media all wanted to talk to him, he said.
He'd turned down the request from Good Weekend. He'd do an interview with The Australian - but only on one condition: we were not to make any reference to Computicket.
Computicket was the name of the failed booking agency that landed Miller in prison for 10 months of a three-year sentence after he was convicted on five counts to do with the fraudulent misappropriation of $728,000.
Miller did his time. He didn't rat on anyone. And it happened 20 years ago. I had expected to mention Computicket only in passing. Maybe I could write BC for Before Computicket and AC for After. But omit it altogether? Like many journalists, I conduct interviews both on and off the record. But that's different from agreeing to excise a chapter of the man's life known to anyone who was conscious at the time. The idea made me uneasy. On the other hand, Miller was saying that he'd talk to us but not to Good Weekend. "I'll ask my editor and call you back," I said.
The article was originally destined for the Review section of The Weekend Australian. "We want to write about Harry's deals and Harry wants to do a deal with us - that's perfect," said Review editor Helen Anderson. "Go for it," said Campbell Reid, the editor of The Australian.
We should have said no. Instead we were beguiled, not so much by Harry as by the shimmer of the unfolding story.
Calling Miller back, I asked why he was willing to speak to us but not to our rivals. No mention of a deal. "I'll tell you why," he said expansively. "Rupert Murdoch has never stopped supporting me personally."
Next he conjured up my employer Lachlan Murdoch and his brother James. Less than a minute had passed and a host of ghostly Murdochs glimmered in the air around us. But we didn't have a deal yet.
I had agreed not to mention Computicket as a condition of the interview. I thought that was that. Silly me. He'd send us a piece of paper to sign, said Miller. The piece of paper appeared on my desk the following afternoon. I read it in amazement.
Suddenly he was demanding complete control of the story. "The article will be submitted to me ... for approval by me and my advisers. The Australian will undertake ... not [to] publish the material, including my pictures, captions and subheadings, unless it meets with my approval." He had even snuck in a clause giving him the right to approve references to the ABA inquiry.
Our reply said: "You must be joking."
The message he left began with the sound of his laughter. Then he spoke at a normal decibel level in a reasonable tone of voice. "It's Harry Miller. I just saw what they sent you. That's our standard bit of paper. I signed it but didn't read it."
I heard it but didn't believe it. It is his own image Miller works hardest at promoting. "Harry's job in life is to make himself as important as his clients," says a former associate.
Depending on the role he plays, Miller's clients may pay him 25 per cent; "and that means 25 per cent of everything," says another agent, "even if it's a gift of a case of wine."
His clients say Miller is good on detail. But Miller seemed to be suggesting he and the people around him kept signing things without looking at them. When we first talked and Miller raised the spectre of the ABA inquiry, he said: "The truth is, Alan Jones doesn't make any deals. He doesn't read the f...ing pieces of paper." It could be true. Nothing else could explain the startling fact that had emerged from the documents setting out the deals Jones and John Laws had with Optus.
Laws had handled his own contracts. Jones, whose contracts were negotiated by Miller, got less than Laws from Optus, though he had the larger Sydney ratings.
The contracts worth $1 million a year to Jones that the ABA examined constitute only part of his earnings. "A huge slice of Harry's income comes from Alan Jones," says a source. I wanted to ask Miller if he thought the ABA inquiry would affect his relationship with Jones but I didn't get that far.
The next time we talked, I asked Miller if anyone had ever signed the "standard" letter. They had, he replied: "Anybody who desperately wants to do an interview - even some in your building, Elisabeth."
People who've known him for years - including people who prefer to keep him at arm's length - see a side of Miller that is warm, expansive and hugely entertaining. Journalists often see another side, that never stops calculating. And to Miller, it seems, one hack is much the same as another. We are either writing flattering profiles of celebrities (himself included) or we are out to get him.
For the moment I was in the former category; with the standard letter, Miller sent an article from a trade publication that quoted him, straight-faced, saying: "No one at the Harry M. Miller Group is allowed to lie and no one's allowed to exaggerate."
On the phone, Miller was reeling off the names of people he thought I should ask about him. Television executives. Real estate guys such as the one who sold him his floor in the Horizon apartment building. Promotions people such as Qantas executive Bernard Shirley. "He's a heavy, Elisabeth, he's a heavy if you're ever looking for a nice trip."
The revised letter from Miller's office reached The Australian the Monday before last. There would have been no mention of Computicket in this article had anyone signed it. But no one did. It was the day the ABA released its report. Whatever else the report accomplished (not much, was the general consensus), it threw one thing into sharp relief. The Australian had been contemplating setting up a deal with the man who had set up some of the deals the ABA had investigated.
Anderson had to ring Miller next morning to tell him that, after consultations with the editor, she couldn't sign his second piece of paper. The problem wasn't Computicket, she said. The problem was promising to leave out information that was in the public domain. Understandably angry, Miller said that the deal was off. He wouldn't talk to us under any circumstances. Not only that, he was going to cancel a lunch with the sports editor of The Australian to discuss signing one of his clients as a columnist. For his part, the sports editor said he had been sent documents about the column but that was the first he had heard about lunch.