Another day, another blizzard of negative publicity for Seven West Media surrounding its embattled CEO Tim Worner and his estranged former lover Amber Harrison.
Harrison’s opening Twitter play on Sunday was directly challenging Seven West Media director Jeff Kennett over specific issues about expense claims. Today she has moved onto the “alternative facts” theme, dropping new documents to challenge the claims in this Seven West Media statement last Friday.
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Not since Philip Bowman blew the whistle on Coles Myer in September 1995 have we seen a public company whistleblower generate the sort of publicity that Amber Harrison is garnering against Seven West.
Bowman was the finance director of Coles Myer, who was terminated after just three months in the job for asking too many questions about the infamous Yannon transaction, which cost Coles Myer shareholders $18 million by effectively taking on losses that would have been worn by then-chairman Solomon Lew.
Solly’s billionaire mate and fellow Coles Myer director Lindsay Fox became so exasperated by the media onslaught that he took out newspaper ads bagging the press for going over the top. He even wrote this pugnacious letter to The Age attacking News Corp’s Terry McCrann for writing 29 columns about Yannon.
Amber Harrison is not yet at this level, but we’re now talking six weeks of excruciating pain for Seven’s controlling billionaire Kerry Stokes, his embattled CEO Worner, and their attack dog Bruce McWilliam, whose stewardship of the legal war against Harrison is looking increasingly ham-fisted.
Back in the Yannon days of the mid-1990s, Jeff Kennett was the controversial Victorian premier famous for getting things done but also cutting some governance corners.
For instance, he handed over a heritage building in Melbourne’s Docklands for Lindsay Fox’s classic car collection and also swept aside bureaucratic obstacles to secure a big tax break for Kerry Stokes on a business called HRL.
Fast forward 20 years and now Kennett claims to be an advocate of good corporate practice even though he breaches one of the first rules of governance for independent directors by taking additional payments of $200,000 a year as a service provider who appears on Seven’s programs.
When Kerry Stokes took a punt on Kennett as a director 19 months ago, there were a few mutterings that he was a loose cannon who wasn’t a team player and couldn’t be controlled.
Seven has been exceedingly careful, brief and legalistic in its public pronouncements about the Worner-Harrison situation, but Jeff Kennett opened up a new opportunity for the whistleblower by sounding off about her on Twitter late on Friday night.
I’m not aware of any other individual public company director who has used Twitter to opine about a scandal when the fur was flying. It can’t be co-ordinated and certainly hasn’t helped Seven’s cause, now that Harrison is directly bombarding Kennett with documents and evidence on Twitter.
Harrison is a long way short of 29 supportive Terry McCrann columns, but she is very different to Philip Bowman, who didn’t speak to any media during his nine-month battle. However, Bowman did shout supportive journalists a nice dinner in Carlton after securing a $1.75 million settlement.
Harrison is clearly cranking up the pressure on Worner before he is due to appear on a February 14 analysts’ call explaining the latest half-year results. He can’t keep hiding from public view forever.
So where will this all end? The likes of 60 Minutes and Australian Story would clearly be an option for Harrison, but she’s not rushing into it.
The Seven West AGM in October is another option, but you would think some sort of peace would have broken out before then. There are some who believe such a settlement should involve the departure of Worner and/or McWilliam, who have together notched up more than 30 years at Seven.
However, Stokes and the board would clearly be conscious that either man could do a lot of damage to Seven if employed by rivals Ten, Nine or Foxtel.
Kerry Stokes and Bruce McWilliam are used to spending millions running big legal cases against adversaries, but they’ve never had one like this issue, which has spiralled into a PR disaster.
Both men are uncomfortable in the public spotlight, whereas Amber Harrison, who is well versed in Seven’s PR and marketing machine, is growing more comfortable with her newfound freedom to tell it like it is.
As today’s “alternative facts” tweeting demonstrates, she’s got a pile of material and is no longer intimidated by ongoing legal threats from Seven.
The rest of the media are also fed up with receiving legal letters commissioned by McWilliam and are more than happy to report Harrison’s front-foot tactics.
Off the record briefings from the likes of McWilliam and veteran Seven spin doctor Simon Francis are no longer having the desired effect.
And with independent director Sheila McGregor resigning last week, it is now a question of how many more people will jump off the Stokes-Worner-McWilliam bandwagon and call for a different approach to resolving the impasse.
Jeff Kennett is the key man here. If he privately said to Stokes “settle or I resign and bag you”, it would probably get done.
But with more than $300,000 a year coming his way from Seven, that would be an expensive card to play.