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MasterChef judges Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris. (Image: Network Ten)

Australian commercial TV is a traditionally ethics-free zone, a place where money talks louder than morality.

Despite this grand tradition, disgraced celebrity chef George Calombaris should surely be sacked from MasterChef Australia. Calombaris has confessed to ripping off more than 500 workers to the tune of $7.8 million in his restaurant empire. His offences are a direct affront to the food industry that Calombaris personally, and MasterChef commercially, purport to support and glorify. 

What does it say to aspiring chefs or anyone working in restaurants if this show openly stands behind someone like Calombaris whose companies knowingly ripped off workers and only reluctantly paid back the $7.8 million after media and regulatory pressure?

And what does it say about the ethics of Ten, now owned by US television giant CBS, which has a market capitalisation of US$19 billion?

CBS is no stranger to problems with staff and public perception. Just last year CBS executive chairman Les Moonves left the company after a number of sexual harassment allegations were made against him. Notably, he was not sacked — Moonves quit, thereby holding on to a generous severance package. But he was out the door nonetheless.

Will Ten and its parent company dither in removing Calombaris? The early signs are not good, with a Ten spokesperson telling Mumbrella:

George and Made Establishment have reached an agreement with the Fair Work Ombudsman in relation to this matter. George has the support of Network 10. We will not be making any further comment.

Me Too has changed everything, but accountability for wage theft is nowhere near as strong. If Calombaris had sexually harassed a female chef, he would be out the door in a flash; yet it seems stealing millions from restaurant workers is okay, even when the power imbalance is huge courtesy of 457 visas and the de-unionisation of the hospitality industry.

The ethical challenge for Ten is not entirely unlike the call the Packer family made, over many years, to keep Don Burke on the Nine Network’s payroll despite numerous complaints of harassment and abuse. This decision was surely made because his gardening program, Burke’s Backyard, made them so much money. This culture needs to change.

Ten’s contract with Calombaris presumably includes the so-called “morals clause” which allows termination for conduct which breaks the law and lowers the reputation of the show, which the wage theft saga clearly does.

The call will ultimately be made by Ten CEO Paul Anderson and veteran programming chief Beverley McGarvie, potentially in consultation with their masters at CBS.

MasterChef Australia is owned by production company Endemol Shine, which since March this year has been 50% owned by Disney following the $100 billion acquisition of the 21st Century Fox entertainment assets. The other 50% is owned by private equity firm Apollo.

Endemol Shine will do what the television client requires so it is not really their place to universally sack George, who Ten should publicly let go shortly after tomorrow’s night’s final episode.

As for any atonement by George, on top of repaying the $7.8 million, surely he needs to do better than the proposed $200,000 payment negotiated with Fair Work Australia.

When you consider that 7-Eleven has handed over more than $100 million of make-good payments to ripped off staff, it is clear that Australia has a massive issue with wage theft. Just yesterday, it was reported that Neil Perry’s Rockpool empire — now owned by private equity firm Quadrant — is facing a Federal Court action from a Nepalese chef claiming mistreatment and underpayment. This is clearly endemic in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

This is a saga which Network Ten needs to wash its hands of by formally severing all ties with Calombaris in the coming weeks.

But, based on the culture of Australian commercial television, you shouldn’t hold your breath.

Peter Fray

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