By his own admission in his second tell-all book, Harry M Miller is an egotist. He’s quite up front about how he mistreated his children by several wives — starving them for affection, showing them no patience for the messy vicissitudes of being a kid and driving them as hard as he’s always driven himself. He’s also cheated on many of his wives and girlfriends, another thing Miller cheerfully tells you as if he’s your best mate sitting opposite in the pub.
Who is this man? If you don’t know one of the biggest names in Australian entertainment history, Harry M Miller’s the New Zealand born show business agent who’s not only shepherded some of the biggest names in Australian media to the top of the heap, he spent the 1960s and 70s bringing some of the most famous acts in global entertainment to Australia, including Judy Garland’s disastrous Melbourne concert, where she showed up so drunk she couldn’t finish the performance.
It’s just one of the many tall tales of his heyday Miller regales us with, but he’s better known for more recent exploits with disaster survivors. Clients include Stuart Diver of the Thredbo lodge collapse fame and James Scott, lost in the Himalayas for 43 days in 1991. Such clients earned Miller something of a reputation as an ambulance chaser, and this book might have been his opportunity to defend himself.
But it’s with the phrase ‘enough rope’ bubbling up in your mind that you’ll read the first thing he asked Scott (still in Nepal after being rescued only days before) was about the chocolate bars he’d eaten during the ordeal to stay alive. If they were Mars bars, Miller had already brokered a $500,000 from the company to endorse him.
It’s just one example of how watching Miller work is a lot like watching your parents French kiss — you know it’s gone on and that there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s still enough to turn your stomach. You’re tempted to think of Miller as a vulture, but when (as he claims) nobody suffers and victims are duly compensated for their suffering, he makes a convincing case for why he his profession is clean when it feels so grubby to read about.
He makes no such case for his personal ethics. After metaphorically blowing on his fingernails to rub on his collar by telling us about Shirley Bassey’s aggressive seduction of him during her Australian tour, he asks us to sympathise several chapters later when telling us he broke it off with a girlfriend because she liked to gossip.
It’s also hard to decide if Miller holds journalists in contempt or rapture. It seems the latter’s reserved for those who’ve helped make him a success. Several, like legendary women’s magazine editor Nene King, are fawned over at every opportunity for their high standards and journalistic principles while any reporter who’s ever stood in the way of Miller’s commercial interests is dismissed as a ‘failed novelist’.
The misadventure in his life has been just as colourful. He was famously jailed in 1982 over the failed automated ticketing system Computicket, an experience that’s left him particularly bitter and about which he maintains was the cause of a political witch hunt because of his links to the Liberal Party rather than crooked books as the court found.
He also managed broadcaster Alan Jones during the infamous cash for comments affair, and his control over any press about his clients is absolute, Miller proudly telling us he insists in vetting and approving every word written about his clients in the press.
Given his colourful background The West Australian arranged an interview through his publisher, looking forward to giving Miller the chance to present himself in a better light. In particular we were interested in his defence of Jones’ in relation to the cash for comments affair and Miller’s insistence on editorial control.
An email finally came back through a member of Miller’s staff with a few ineffective single sentence answers but most questions ignored completely. A subsequent phone call to Miller to ask for more information to talk about his book was met with a ‘can’t help you’.
It seems the man who helped shape the modern Australian media takes an all-or-nothing approach. You’re either with him (a high profile, corporate largesse) or against him (he won’t even take your phone calls).