Kerry Stokes and the Seven Network board came to their AGM yesterday ready for combat.

The tone was clear from the outset with spindoctor Tim Allerton loitering outside and then confiscating my recording device.

Rio Tinto is the only other company that has done that this year, but at least the mining giant still webcast proceedings.

No such luck with Seven, even though it is a broadcasting company. Indeed, Stokes was asked at the start of the meeting to ensure some sort of record of proceedings be made available to shareholders and commercial director Bruce McWilliam brazenly declared “there’s no legal requirement”.

Whilst more than 90% of public company CEOs deliver presentations at AGMs, Seven Network shareholders were only delivered eight minutes from chairman Kerry Stokes before we were straight into the formal business but not allowed to ask general questions, only specifics on each resolutions.

Bombastic CEO David Leckie didn’t get to present but after about three questions he started heckling: “What do you want, your own show? How many shares does he own?”

Rather than restoring orderly debate, Stokes adopted this bullying stance for the rest of the meeting, regularly interjecting and refusing to answer most questions.

When long-time director Dulcie Boling was asked why she owned even less than my 20 shares — none — she sat mute as Stokes protected her from any debate.

When Stokes was asked to reveal the real pay packets of Leckie and McWilliam — the CEO didn’t really drop from $3.3 million to less than $1 million as the accounts claim — Leckie just said it was “not enough” and we got no detail.

When I spoke against the re-election of Bruce McWilliam on the grounds that somebody had to be held accountable for the C7 fiasco, Stokes started making veiled threats about defamation suggesting words such as “vexatious” and “serial litigant” should not be used.

He didn’t respond to the question: “How do you describe spending $200 million on one case and losing?”

When we finally got to general business at the end, the truly dictatorial Kerry Stokes was on display.

I was midway through a comment that Seven needed to improve its corporate governance and stop treating shareholders with contempt when Stokes suddenly demanded that I “sit down”.

After standing my ground and attempting to continue, a big burly security guard actually headed to the microphone. And that was it, the meeting was over in circumstances I’ve never seen before after speaking at more than 300 public company AGMs over 11 years.

Stokes seemed almost sheepish in apologising to shareholders at the end of the meeting if he was “too combative”, but as soon as the formalities were finished, we were played a trailer from Stephen Spielberg’s coming tele-movie The Pacific, which featured end-to-end military combat not unlike the opening few minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

It was a fitting conclusion.

*Apologies if some of these quotes are not word perfect but Seven has refused to provide any form of record of its one legally required public meeting of the year.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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