Share raid takes Packer's Fairfax stake to 10%: Speculation revived about control of Australian newspaper empire

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KERRY PACKER has revived speculation about his designs on the Fairfax newspaper empire in Australia after embarking on a share raid that has left him the group's second largest shareholder after Conrad Black, the Canadian publisher.

Mr Packer, Australia's wealthiest person and the country's biggest magazine publisher, stunned the industry and the stock market yesterday when it was revealed that he had spent Adollars 75m ( pounds 35m) late on Tuesday to buy 36 million Fairfax shares, about 5 per cent of the company's capital.

The purchase took Mr Packer's stake in Fairfax to 10 per cent. Nine Network Australia, a television company controlled by Mr Packer, announced three weeks ago that it had bought almost 5 per cent of Fairfax shares.

Spokesmen for Mr Packer and the Fairfax goup declined to comment on the latest raid. It was undertaken by Ord Minnett, a broker that has acted for Mr Packer before and bought the Nine Network stake. The latest shares were apparently acquired from institutional investors after the Australian stock exchange closed on Tuesday. The average price, Adollars 2.10, is the highest for Fairfax shares since the company was floated a year ago.

Mr Packer has now spent about Adollars 125m building up a stake in Fairfax in the last few months. The group publishes some of Australia's most influential and profitable newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age of Melbourne and the Australian Financial Review.

Fairfax was Australia's oldest newspaper dynasty until it went into receivership in late 1990. The group was acquired in late 1991 by a consortium headed by Mr Black, publisher of the Daily Telegraph. Mr Packer himself was a partner in the consortium, but dropped out amid a political row in Australia over his possible contravention of media cross-ownership rules.

With his share raids, Mr Packer now appears to be fulfilling earlier speculation that he would not abandon his interest in acquiring an influential and possibly a controlling stake of Fairfax, the company that was once a fierce rival of his newspaper publisher father, the late Sir Frank Packer.

Mr Packer is approaching the 15 per cent maximum he is allowed in Fairfax under Australian laws, which forbid on individual owning newspapers and television outlets in the same market. Mr Black, the largest shareholder, himself owns only 15 per cent under foreign ownership restrictions, although he has applied to the Australian government to raise his stake to 25 per cent.