ben roberts smith kerry stokes
Ben Roberts-Smith and Kerry Stokes (Images: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Kerry Stokes wouldn’t have enjoyed 60 Minutes on Sunday night, as he was thoroughly embarrassed for his ongoing support of controversial former SAS soldier Ben Roberts-Smith.

As Crown Resorts and many others have discovered, Nine’s Nick McKenzie is the best investigative reporter in Australia. So it remains puzzling why Stokes would continue to take him on by financing the Roberts-Smith defamation action against Nine.

McKenzie has reported today that it was initially the public company Seven West Media which extended $1.87 million worth of support to Roberts-Smith, before Stokes personally took over the loan in late June last year — presumably as directors raised questions through the year-end audit process.

As Crikey has previously noted, Seven and Stokes can be highly aggressive and litigious in defending their people and positions. But 60 Minutes really put the heat on Stokes personally, cranking up the Australian media wars to a level we haven’t seen since Stokes sued the world in his failed C7 litigation 15 years ago.

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McKenzie made a series of embarrassing disclosures about the alleged conduct of Roberts-Smith on 60 Minutes. That includes the sending of anonymous letters to witnesses using the resources of Seven West Media and a whistleblower complaint, allegedly arranged by Ben Roberts-Smith, which sparked a police raid against another witness after The Australian ran this page-one story by Andrew Burrell.

However, the most embarrassing aspect was the claims that Roberts-Smith amateurishly hid USB drives full of photos of soldiers behaving badly inside a children’s lunchbox buried in his own backyard. It’s an allegation that could even spark a reopening of the Brereton war crimes inquiry.

The images and broader revelations broadcast on 60 Minutes and printed in The Age were a potent mix, particularly the secret recordings of Roberts-Smith talking about Seven and Stokes with multiple associates.

Secret recordings never go well when broadcast widely in prime time, but how did they fall into Nine’s hands? There appears to be a growing group of sources briefing against Roberts-Smith and Seven, and the discovery process through the defamation battles is also proving fruitful for Nine.

You would think the ongoing revelations would mean Stokes surely now has no option but to end his support for Roberts-Smith, or at least remove the public company from the equation by terminating the employment arrangement.

But Stokes is not for turning. Seven came out punching in defence of Roberts-Smith this week, meaning that this is now a matter for the board.

The aggressive nature of the counter-attack sounded very much like the work of Seven’s highly combative legal director Bruce McWilliam. McWilliam is Malcolm Turnbull’s bestie and has amassed his own $100 million-plus pile while spending 30-plus years in the media trenches. He is a pugilistic partisan and a Stokes loyalist who is unlikely to ever suggest his boss back down or compromise (which is exactly what should happen if even half of this week’s revelations are true).

At the very least, the Seven West Media directors should insist that an independent review is conducted to advise on whether Roberts-Smith should be removed from his well-paid position as general manager of Seven’s Queensland operations.

Kerry Stokes is our 10th richest billionaire. He is worth $7.26 billion, according to The Australian‘s 2021 Rich List, and he can do whatever he likes with his own money. However, he only owns about 30% of ASX-listed Seven West Media on a fully diluted basis, so he shouldn’t be able to treat it like a private company.

Seven West Media CEO James Warburton is in charge of hiring and firing executives so, from a chain-of-command point of view, it is his job to move on Roberts-Smith.

If Warburton won’t or can’t do his job because non-executive chairman and controlling shareholder Kerry Stokes is protecting Roberts-Smith, then it is up to the independent Seven West Media directors to intervene.

For the record, we are talking specifically about John Alexander, David Evans, Teresa Dyson, Michael Malone, Colette Garnsey and Michael Ziegelaar.

All it would take is for one, some or all of them to send the following email to Stokes:

Hi Kerry,

After watching 60 Minutes and reading the latest revelations in The Age, we can no longer support the company retaining Ben Roberts-Smith as a senior executive. If you are not prepared to move on him then please accept our resignations as directors of Seven West Media and advise the ASX that we have had a disagreement over this issue. If you are prepared to terminate Roberts-Smith then please arrange for this to happen and be announced to the ASX before 5pm on Tuesday afternoon.

Regards,

Colette Garnsey, Michael Malone, John Alexander, David Evans, Teresa Dyson and Michael Ziegelaar.

I sent this suggestion to Michael Ziegelaar, a Melbourne-based Freehills partner, and asked him to forward it to the other independent directors. There has been no reply thus far.

It is time for the independent directors to find their voice. Although… in the case of Ziegelaar, his Freehills law firm has received tens of millions in fees from the Stokes interests over the years.