The flabbergasting behaviour of the men leading Seven West Media was on display again in recent days when their hardball negotiating tactics against former executive assistant Amber Harrison guaranteed many more months of damaging headlines and distractions.

Seven’s proprietor Kerry Stokes, legal chief Bruce William and CEO Tim Worner, whose consensual two-year affair with Harrison caused the implosion, were a few words away from peace in their time with Harrison at a price of just $50,000. What a bargain!

But the boys wanted to make Amber grovel with an abject apology, which would have created the impression it was all her fault.

It wasn’t, of course, and Harrison is now back on a public war footing with Seven, which may well lead to her running for the Seven West Media board at the next AGM in November.

There’s also nothing stopping her running for the board of Equity Trustees, the venerable Melbourne-based financial services company on whose board Seven West Media director Jeff Kennett serves.

By no longer contesting Seven’s claims in court or pursuing her own counter-claims, Harrison has laid down her legal arms and shifted the debate back into the court of public opinion, where she has proven herself to be an effective combatant.

Sure, the super-injunction restricting Harrison commenting on Seven will be confirmed and Seven will attempt to blacken her name in court today — but this won’t stop a talk circuit career on the importance of whistleblowing and resisting the demands of rich and powerful men.

Harrison, whose resilience under pressure has been more than apparent since this issue blew up last December, refused to bow in the face of literally hundreds of legal letters from Bruce McWilliam’s well paid army of lawyers.

Seven West Media is now faced with the invidious decision: should it bankrupt a foster mum pursuing costs when Seven’s own CEO has publicly apologised for doing the wrong thing?

Seven’s negotiations and engagement with Harrison won’t stop with today’s court appearances — they just move into the costs/bankruptcy/AGM space rather than being behind closed doors, as has occurred over recent months.

It has been a range of female journalists in particular who have applied the blow torch to Seven West Media, and the AFR’s Misa Han has the best coverage today. Her colleague Joe Aston took a different position, parroting contested claims of theft involving “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on Twitter this morning.

[Mayne: Seven’s legal eagle lays down suppressing fire, but Amber Harrison is resolute]

Kerry Stokes even resorted to personally calling The Australian’s Caroline Overington after she wrote this strong piece back in February. Stand by for more of the same.

Bruce McWilliam has been Stokes’ chief tactician all the way through and, as a direct result of the Harrison storm, earnt himself a tough but fair profile on the cover of Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine on Saturday.

The optics did not look good for Malcolm Turnbull as his best mate gloated about his $100 million personal property portfolio while defending the aggressive lawfare strategies he has deployed against Harrison, partially on the grounds that he’s used female lawyers to grind her into the dust. Talk about an imbalance of power. Has a prime ministerial neighbour and confidante ever bankrupted a foster mum before?

It was on the say so of McWilliam, backed by his proprietor mate Stokes, that Seven has wasted millions of dollars of shareholder funds brawling with Harrison. The vast majority of public companies in an equivalent situation would have invested modestly in a settlement to protect their brand.

For a bloke who lives in a $30 million Point Piper mansion, McWilliam hasn’t exactly aligned his financial position with Seven West Media shareholders, who are funding the lawfare and have suffered terrible performance in recent years. After 14 years as a Stokes fixer earning more than $10 million in cash payments from public companies, McWilliam doesn’t even own $500,000 worth of ordinary shares in Seven West Media.

[Mayne: has Amber Harrison triggered a war between Kerry Stokes and Rupert Murdoch?]

He does hold $1.7 million worth of shares in Seven Group Holdings, but this is largely a resources company now, with its media holdings representing just 15% of the $3 billion market value.

The whole sordid saga with Harrison hasn’t exactly boosted the stocks of Seven West Media as a place where female employees would want to work. There is also the risk of a consumer or advertising backlash given a majority of its viewers are female and the network presents as family friendly.

You’d also have to wonder why Sydney University would keep McWilliam on as chair of its law school advisory committee. If they are asked to make a change, it would be interesting seeing how the University Senate would respond.

Belinda Hutchinson AM, the former QBE chair and a strong advocate on gender issues, is the current Sydney University chancellor.

Other leading female lights on the director circuit such as Diane Smith-Gander have bought in and criticised Seven West Media, so don’t be surprised if Hutchinson’s view is also sought.

McWilliam has pumped plenty of cash into his old law school in the past and received various accolades over the years, but the Good Weekend cover story and Amber Harrison publicity is not something you’d ordinarily want your graduates or donors delivering.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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