Talk about peak season in the world of keeping big media companies honest.

While focus has now shifted to today’s Fairfax Media AGM, yesterday’s Seven Network AGM produced the biggest booty of interesting exchanges that its billionaire proprietor Kerry Stokes has ever served up.

The contrast with last year’s open warfare was stark indeed and we both managed a private apology after yesterday’s much healthier debate.

Stokes was clearly keen to make a whole stack of points yesterday and gave detailed answers to all questions put to him over an hour of debate, which included a five-minute press conference in front of all the shareholders at the end.

Indeed, after the meeting Stokes’ spinners said the question of an investment in Fairfax Media should have been raised and The AFR’s Neil Shoebridge was duly given that yarn, which was run off page one today.

The Stokes’ grovel to Kevin Rudd about the stimulus package was quite extraordinary. Check out the formal comments and then listen here to the edited audio from the AGM where the final exchange took in the grand conspiracy theory of the PM’s recent night as a guest of Stokes in Broome, plus potential changes to media ownership laws.

Stokes claimed to have never discussed media ownership with the PM whose own career received an extraordinary boost from the run he got on Seven’s Sunrise program while Opposition foreign spokesman.

With John Howard’s son, Tim, observing the AGM as a Seven employee and the likes of Warwick Smith and Richard Court also having been on the Stokes payroll, it was strange indeed to hear Stokes declare that lobbying by media moguls never did any good.

The “no media talkies with Kevin in Broome” line would also seem surprising when you consider what Mark Latham wrote about his experience of having dinner with Stokes in 2004.

Even the line about only having one tiff with James Packer 10 years ago seems hard to fathom. It’s as if the $200 million C7 court case never happened.

Kerry Stokes is without doubt a very prickly character. He doesn’t like overpaying his executives and openly admitted that Seven CEO David Leckie was underpaid yesterday, particularly after he lost those three million shares in April courtesy of an options agreement with Macquarie.

As for any conciliation skills, it will be very interesting to see if Stokes heeds the warning from his institutional shareholders yesterday about the need for more independent directors.

For Ryan Stokes to only receive 100 million votes in favour when his father controls 92 million shares was an extraordinary protest that again demonstrated the power commanded by proxy advising firm RiskMetrics.

Finally, the other element in the media accountability firmament yesterday came with the release of the notice of meeting for the Network Ten AGM in Sydney on December 10.

Fresh from losing badly in public company tilt No.37 at Fairfax today, I’ve backed up with a crack No.38 at the Ten board in what will be the first example of a contested corporate election based on the shafting of retail investors.

Ten should have offered its small shareholders a share purchase plan on the same terms as this year’s $138 million selective institutional placement at the discounted price of $1.15 a share. Sadly, executive chairman Nick Falloon took the governance low road and has now even stooped to censorship and distorted arguments in the notice of meeting.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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