In less than a year, journalists with close to 100 years newsroom experience between them have left Australia’s most widely read agricultural newspaper, under the short editorship of Natalee Ward. One formal complaint, as well as informal complaints and concerns raised in exit interviews, indicate that Ward’s alleged management style was responsible for some, but not all, of those departures.

The first female editor of the News Corp-owned paper resigned last month, after taking several weeks of family leave, and four months after a former reporter was told an external investigation had found Ward had treated her poorly.

When Crikey first inquired with Ward and News Corp in June about her leave, both told us there had been a formal complaint but there was nothing to it. Ward said a handful of staffers had left, but it wasn’t due to any sort of bullying, that her leave was unrelated and she would soon be returning to work.

Late last month, though, Ward sent an email to the editorial team saying she was leaving to “pursue other opportunities”.

Crikey has since obtained the letter sent by News Corp’s human resources office to the complainant Emma Field — who was the grains editor of The Weekly Times and is now working for the ABC. She won a Walkley Award at the mid-year awards held recently for work she did at the Times about the exploitation of workers on farms. Crikey understands the stress of investigating the story while dealing with the stressful work environment contributed to Field’s decision to leave the paper.

The formal complaint, submitted in January, alleged bullying and harassment by Ward. In the letter to Field, dated March 14, 2018, a News Corp HR representative told her that Ward had behaved inappropriately and “appropriate action” had been taken. The letter said that details of that action, and the investigation report, couldn’t be provided for confidentiality reasons.

“The formal investigation into your complaint against the respondent employee to your complaint has found that during the period of September 2017 to December 2017 that the respondent employee behaved in an inappropriate and/or disrespectful manner towards you,” the letter said.

News Corp, however, stands by its original statement to Crikey that the complaint was not substantiated. A spokeswoman said that News Corp Australia took “all claims of alleged bullying and harassment very seriously”.

“Consequently, in accordance with policy, a claim of alleged bullying and harassment against Ms Ward was independently investigated,” she said. “The claim of alleged bullying and harassment was not substantiated.”

News Corp’s spokeswoman said that each claim or event in the complaint had been individually investigated, and none that constituted bullying or harassment had been substantiated. She would not comment on the letter sent to Field that did not state this, and that also advised her that Ward’s behaviour had been “inappropriate and/or disrespectful”.

As well as the formal complaint, Crikey understands that at least three employees who have left the paper raised concerns in their HR exit interviews about the culture at the paper, and others raised concerns to publisher Ed Gannon — the former editor promoted to publisher, and now back in the editor’s chair. News Corp did not respond to Crikey’s questions about the number of formal and informal complaints raised regarding Ward.

Those who have left include Field, who’d been with the paper for seven years, politics reporter Kath Sullivan, livestock editor Jamie-Lee Oldfield, who’d been at the paper for three years and has worked in agricultural journalism for nine years, production editor Ian Gilbert who has nearly 30 years’ experience in newsrooms, business reporter Alex Sampson, and machine and features editor Justin Law. Business editor Lyndal Reading has resigned and will leave the paper before the end of the month.

Of the journalists who have left, some have moved for career progression, others for career changes. By no means all of those that Crikey spoke to had an issue with Ward as editor.

Of those who did, however, the alleged unpredictability of Ward’s temper reached a point where one employee claims to have sought medical treatment for panic attacks, attributed to the work environment. Some left for jobs with less pay, others for less secure work.

Former journalists that Crikey has spoken to claim to have experienced extreme stress, with one saying she developed anxiety, but was too scared to complain in case it affected her career.

“We were so worried we’d get the sack if we made a complaint,” the journalist said. “I felt sick leaving other people in this environment.”

Another journalist, who took a “significant” pay cut for a job away from the Times, said they had been “constantly on edge” during Ward’s tenure:

“It left me feeling stressed about my job security and worried about the quality of my work. I took a significant pay cut to move into my current role, and now I consider my career path at News Corp completely shattered.”

One of the biggest concerns to journalists we spoke to was how much talent had left the newsroom.

“It was such a wasteful chapter in the paper’s history, so much talent has walked out the door … And the staff who are left are overworked, as many journalists have not been replaced, and morale is at its lowest ebb,” said one.

Another said: “The damage has been done, so many people have left … You can’t have a specialist publication when no one has any specialist knowledge. A lot of the people who’ve left The Weekly Times have gone out of ag(riculture) entirely because there aren’t that many jobs.”

Natalee Ward did not respond to Crikey’s requests for comment.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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