We’ve been trained to barrack for the underdog. David should always beat adversity and triumph over Goliath. We all wanted Rocky to triumph over Ivan Drago. No one roots for the German guy in Die Hard. Thus, it’s only natural when we all read about the Amber Harrison mess last December to naturally side with the single photogenic lady competing against the might of one of Australia’s biggest media companies and richest men. This was exacerbated as every non-Seven outlet naturally took a hostile stance to the allegations made against Seven CEO Tim Worner. The problem is, real life isn’t a Hollywood script, and in the Harrison Story, there don’t really seem to be any good guys.
The biggest challenge for the audience in the drama was that there appeared to be a really obvious bad guy. High-flying Seven CEO Tim Worner didn’t even bother to deny the allegations that he had an extra-marital affair. He didn’t even deny using cocaine other than saying Harrison’s claims “contain wide-ranging inaccuracies”. But while few would defend Worner’s actions, and his behaviour might well have warranted termination, that is an issue solely for the Seven West Media board and major shareholder, Kerry Stokes. The fact that Seven chose to continue to employ Worner doesn’t cleanse Harrison’s conduct — in short, this isn’t a Hollywood script, and it is possible to have two bad guys.
So let’s go back to the beginning. When she lived in the UK in 2001, her boss at bathroom fittings company The Water Monopoly Justin Homewood alleges that “thousands of pounds went missing during Ms Harrison’s time” at the company. There is nothing to substantiate the allegation other than a police report. Harrison says the allegations are the result of a “long-held grudge” because the two had had a “fling”.
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According to Seven’s lawyers, Harrison told friends that she had leaked stories to journalists as part of a “a revenge campaign that stopped the city” about an “executive at Nova that fucked me over”.
Then there was the now infamous Worner tryst, which most of Australia is now aware of. After the affair ended, in 2014, things started to unravel. Within weeks, Seven started investigating Harrison’s unauthorised credit card use — Seven says the investigation was a random audit. Later in 2014, Harrison spoke with HR and requested to be moved to a different part of Seven. She would be paid $100,000 (which was reportedly taken from Worner’s bonus) and given two months of paid leave. However, upon Harrison’s return to work, Seven discovered the now infamous $262,000 in unauthorised expenses and made Harrison redundant.
Harrison hired Harmers, one of the most litigious and pugnacious employment plaintiff firms in Australia. Harmers was founded by former union researcher Michael Harmer 21 years ago and most famously represented Kristy Fraser-Kirk in her $37 million sex-bullying case against David Jones. It was around that time, in 2014, that Harrison starting sending emails in which she claimed “he [Worner] knows I am now out to get him” and that “I want to kill him. Seriously. I am plotting my revenge and it will make Nova look like a turkey slap”.
At that point, certainly with the benefit of hindsight, Seven should probably have called Harrison’s bluff. Instead, attempting to protect Worner, it allegedly agreed to pay Harrison $200,000, would forgive the $72,000 it claimed were illegitimate expenses and agreed to pay a further $150,000 in instalments. Either pay up or Amber goes public with stuff Worner wants to be kept secret. Bear in mind, even if Harrison had been unfairly dismissed, she would be entitled to a maximum of six months’ pay. Harrison was to receive more than $400,000 (plus the $100,000 she had already been paid). Seven didn’t labour this point as it doesn’t exactly reflect well on Seven, and media organisations reporting on Harrison also ignored this point as it didn’t fit with the David and Goliath narrative.
As would later transpire, Seven reneged on the final part of the settlement instalments in March 2015 after alleging that Harrison breached her confidentiality obligations. Harrison would also accuse Seven of breaching its obligations by disclosing information to the Financial Review. By that time, Seven had paid Harrison $323,000 and Harmers $50,000.
Harrison then went nuclear in late 2016 after Seven failed to make payments she alleged were owing. Seven would then obtain an injunction to prevent Harrison from making further comments, and earlier this week, the Supreme Court found that Harrison would be liable for Seven’s costs in the matter.
My learned colleague and friend, Stephen Mayne, has been effectively a spokesperson for Harrison since December. However, Mayne, like many others, appears to have placed loathing of Seven and Worner ahead of what appears to be a straightforward reading of the facts.
Mayne’s article on Monday was a conspiracy theory that belongs on the likes of Breitbart. Harrison agreed to a permanent suppression order on the eve of the court hearing. Then she refused a final settlement (allegedly because she was unwilling to apologise), necessitating an actual Supreme Court hearing, in which she was bizarrely unrepresented. Given those facts, no judge would ever return with any other finding than requiring Harrison to pay costs. That is exactly how legal costs work — if you bring a frivolous action, or challenge a genuine action and choose not to settle, essentially wasting the court’s time and taxpayer money, you are liable to pay costs. Harrison could have agreed to the suppression order back in February; instead she wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees before eventually agreeing anyway.
Harrison is not a victim; her predicament is entirely of her own making. Harrison admitted to stealing from Seven (and no, the claim that “everyone was doing it” isn’t a legal defence). She was paid far more than she would legally have been entitled to for unfair dismissal and despite that, wanted more. There are some genuine victims here, but Amber Harrison is definitely not one of them.
Adam Schwab is a former lawyer and the author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Amber Harrison worked for radio group Nova.