Nine CEO Hugh Marks. (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

With corporate rivals stalking him, his own board at loggerheads over his behaviour and reports of damaging anonymous emails circulating about him, it’s no wonder outgoing Nine CEO Hugh Marks was described as “emotional” this past weekend.

He even raised the question of whether “someone was out to get [him]”.

If there was, then the list of suspects could be very long.

At the top of the list would be Marks himself, who seemed to do a good job of blowing up his own career with not one but two questionable relationships with female staff in the past year.

While he has denied allegations of an affair with his executive assistant Jane Routledge, despite press photos of them enjoying a cosy picnic during a lunch break in May, he has now confirmed that he is romantically involved with former Nine executive Alexi Baker.

That admission — in an interview with one of his own reporters, respected gossip columnist Andrew Hornery — that sparked an emergency board meeting and the sudden announcement of Marks’ resignation.

The timing is interesting given that Hornery states clearly in the piece, written on Friday, “that the board had been made aware of the relationship”. So why the dramatic meeting on Saturday morning after the piece appeared?

All this only two days after the Nine AGM where chair Peter Costello was specifically asked about Marks’ relationship with an employee and dismissed it as “not breaching company policies or its code”.

This is hardly surprising given Nine doesn’t seem to have a specific policy or code on this issue, as revealed in a news story in their own papers last week.

Also we assume that Costello was then talking about the first allegation which Marks has denied, not the second one we didn’t know about yet — although to be fair, it is hard to keep up.

Marks seems to not only have divided his own board (meetings lacked “calmness”, he admitted Sunday) but perhaps his own staff; an anonymous email exposing the Nine culture appeared after the AGM.

But the main catalyst was that Nine was expecting another hatchet job from rival News Corp papers. The same gossip columnist who broke the picnic tête-à-tête in May was about to do another story in The Sunday Tele.

Marks pre-empted it by agreeing to speak with Hornery who already had the story. Interestingly, the normally sensitive editorial executives allowed him to run with it despite the enormous implications.

That brings us to the more disturbing question of what role Nine’s commercial rival, News Corp, played in bringing down the CEO with a campaign in its papers about his private life.

There’s obviously a febrile atmosphere for such stories, from the recent AMP scandals to last week’s Four Corners program about politicians having inappropriate relationships with staff.

At the time of the May story, complete with paparazzi staking out Marks and Routledge lazing in a park, there were questions raised about the role of News Corp in undermining the chief of its main media competitor.

It’s the type of intimidation that is routine for their tabloids on Fleet Street. Given the current outcry over News Corp’s nefarious influence on our political scene, and the half a million signatures for Kevin Rudd’s anti-News petition, it could raise new questions about misuse of media power for corporate gain.

At the very least it confirms the rank hypocrisy of the News organisation which has plenty of its own executives and editors who have had affairs with staff. The company also continues to hire men from other media organisations who have form.

With News Australia, in particular its Foxtel arm, in dire financial shape the paranoia about the growing success of their main rival at Nine has become palpable.

The other beneficiary of any destabilisation at the top of Nine is its main television competitor, the Seven Network. Seven is also going through turmoil. Just last month it was confirmed that, despite denials to the market, owner Kerry Stokes had indeed been shopping the network around to potential buyers — thus far unsuccessfully.

News might not be a buyer for Seven outright but the two have been rumoured to look at merging their news operations to give the struggling Sky News a free-to-air outlet after Lachlan Murdoch lost the takeover for the Ten network.

And in case anyone had forgotten Seven’s much more shameful history in CEO sexual misconduct, Hornery had an interview in The Sun-Herald on Sunday with Amber Harrison, the former lover of ex Seven CEO Tim Worner.

Despite sleazy claims of everything from cocaine snorting to expense rorting between the pair, it was Harrison who was hounded by the Seven legal team. Months later an independent probe cleared Worner of misconduct. He stayed on for a further three years as CEO.

The contrast with Marks’ swift demise is telling.

What do you make of Hugh Marks’ resignation, and what it means for Nine? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

Peter Fray

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