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How I Lost $8bn, By Ted Turner

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Ted Turner, the maverick media tycoon, last night suggested an epitaph for his tombstone. "I have nothing more to say." Until then, he clearly still has plenty. The founder of CNN, who last week resigned as vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, the world's largest media company, gave an interview to the CBS television programme 60 Minutes II, that would have rattled the nerves of his former colleagues.

In comments that occasionally touched on the bizarre, he complained of losing up to $8bn because of the disastrous merger of America Online with Time Warner, opposed the merger of CNN and ABC News, and spoke of the time he spanked his father.

He also attempted to explain away the gaffe that caused uproar in the US when he described the hijackers of September 11 as "brave". The interview was taped in mid-December but updated to take account of Mr Turner's decision to quit last week.

Mr Turner has been described variously as a "loose cannon" and the "mouth of the south" - politely as "unpredictable". His departure as vice chairman triggered justifiable fears among senior AOL Time Warner executives that he would now be free to say whatever he likes. Bitter at his treatment in the post merger of AOL Time Warner and the devastation to his fortune, Mr Turner could prove to be a thorn in the side of chief executive Richard Parsons. As the company's biggest individual shareholder and one of the most colourful figures in the industry his comments are guaranteed publicity.


In the interview Mr Turner marks his first public opposition to the proposals first announced last year to merge CNN with the news operation of Disney-owned ABC. He said he could see some benefits from the deal but suggested the potential for "downside" was too great.

"Just merging the two organisations has a lot of challenges," he said. "The potential pitfalls and opportunities for disagreements exceed whatever benefits would be gained."

The comments appear another nail in the coffin for the deal, which AOL Time Warner chief executive Richard Parsons said in December had "hit a pause" because of the complexity of merging the operations. With other more pressing problems facing the group, the deal has been put on the back burner. There has been some speculation that Mr Turner could make an attempt to buy CNN back from AOL Time Warner, at a time when the media operation is eager to realise cash and pay down some of its debts.

CNN has not of late been a star in the AOL Time Warner portfolio and is losing viewers to Rupert Murdoch's Fox News.

Mr Turner said his fortune had been destroyed by the poor performance of the AOL Time Warner share price and that he simply couldn't afford it. "From the [share price] high to the low, [I lost] seven or eight billion [dollars]".

Mr Turner admitted that he had not chosen his words wisely when he described the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York as brave during a speech to students in Rhode Island. "Brave was a bad word," he said.

In an attempt to explain the comments he delved into his own personal history. "My father committed suicide and he was not a coward. He was very brave when he shot himself, in my opinion, so that's why, to a degree, I said that."


He went on to describe the relationship he had with his father: "I don't think my father was abusive - my father was a strict disciplinarian but he and I were extremely close." But his father used to beat him with a wire coat hanger. "He made me spank him one night and that was very, very hard. It was much easier to be spanked than to spank your father."

Mr Turner, 64, said he was quitting AOL Time Warner to devote more time to his charitable pursuits. He is a philanthropist on a huge scale. Although admitting that he had been "crushed" by the change in his financial fortunes, he recently insisted that he will see through his promise to donate $1bn to the United Nations. He has already released $500m and aims to give the balance over the next decade.

His departure followed a tumultuous couple of years in his business and private lives. He has complained of being marginalised after the merger of America Online and Time Warner that was completed a little more than two years ago and said that he had been effectively "fired" by fax. He called the vice-chairman's job "a title without a portfolio, like the emperor of Japan." During the same period his marriage to the actress Jane Fonda ended in divorce.

Still, the departure of AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case, the last vestige of the old America Online management, had been seen as a sign that the climate at the company might suit Mr Turner better.

It remains unclear whether Mr Turner will stay on the group's board as a non-executive director - he said he will make a decision ahead of the company's annual meeting in May. In his resignation letter, he praised Mr Parsons, who took over the top job at AOL Time Warner in the middle of last year. Mr Parsons in turn reached out to Mr Turner after becoming chief executive and attempted to bring him back into the fold. Last night's interview provided evidence enough of why he might want him to keep him there.

© Guardian News & Media 2008

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