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Seven West Media's commercial director Bruce McWilliam (Image: AAP)

After the first two weeks of the Ben Roberts-Smith (BRS) defamation trial, I sent the following email to Seven West Media’s commercial director, Bruce McWilliam, at 8pm last Saturday:

Hi Bruce,

As a shareholder in Seven West Media, I’m concerned to hear reports that you’ve been attending court every day so far during the Ben Roberts-Smith trial.

Can you advise if it is your intention to keep doing so for the duration of what could turn into a 12-week trial?

If that is the case — and given that you reportedly own a $200 million property portfolio — are you prepared to forgo some of your $1.026 million Seven West Media salary that was disclosed in the 2019-20 annual report?

It doesn’t seem right that public shareholders in a poorly performing listed company like Seven West Media should be subsidising its veteran “commercial director” to spend such large amounts of shareholder time on external unrelated legal matters.

A total of 12 weeks in court, plus all the other preparation time, will end up being more than 20% of your time in 2020. Surely Mr Stokes should be personally paying for this service.

I trust that we will see an adjustment in your 2020-21 salary when the Seven West Media annual report is released in August and that a similar downward adjustment is made for the 2021-22 financial year, depending on whether the case settles or not.

As a trained lawyer, you should be well versed in calculating the amount of time that should be docked, down to the last six-minute increment.

McWilliam is a famously frenetic and feisty emailer and he produced one of his classic replies at 11.18pm on Saturday night, but it was “off the record and not for publication”.

Suffice to say, McWilliam won’t be volunteering for a pay cut and isn’t expecting Seven to impose one.

Ultimately, like everything at Seven, the decision on McWilliam’s pay and the dedication of company resources to defend BRS will come down to the whim of chairman and controlling shareholder Kerry Stokes.

Stokes is a man who loves to fight, as can be seen by what is happening with his attempts to aggressively seize control of venerable building products giant Boral at the moment.

As for the scale of McWilliam’s involvement in the BRS case, he is still turning up every day, constantly texting or emailing on his phone as he juggles management of Seven’s commercial affairs and his $200 million Sydney property portfolio, which the Australian Financial Review outlined in detail in 2018.

The fact that McWilliam lives in a $60 million Point Piper mansion with a 30-metre private beach means that he doesn’t need the money and he doesn’t need to work. He just does it for fun.

At the BRS trial, he has been audaciously sitting at the same table as the Victoria Cross winner, usually next to solicitor Mark O’Brien, a former long-term lawyer for Nine, who has flipped and is now being paid by Stokes privately to act against Nine.

McWilliam chats to the BRS legal team before court, at lunchtime and after court. He even chats to Justine Munsie, the solicitor for three of the SAS witnesses appearing for BRS. Munsie is a defamation specialist at the Sydney law firm Addisons and her major client is… Seven West Media.

Along with Clive Palmer and Solomon Lew, Kerry Stokes is one of Australia’s most litigious billionaires. Apart from paying McWilliam more than $15 million to look after his public company affairs over the years, he is estimated to have already spent more than $5 million on the various BRS battles.

This has included looking after BRS in the long-running IGADF (Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force) Afghanistan Inquiry, helping him manage up to four AFP investigations and the defamation cases. And it’s not just lawyers involved, because the Stokes supports extends to funding the PR team and private investigators.

They have two silks in court, two junior counsel, three partners and an associate from Mark O’Brien Legal, Monica Allen, who was pictured holding hands with BRS by The Courier-Mail last year.

Why is Stokes risking his reputation and more than $10 million doing all this? Many observers remain baffled.
It is true that BRS has been a senior executive at Seven West Media for the past seven years, albeit currently on leave from his position as general manager of the Queensland operation to focus on the defamation case.

Stokes and Seven have clearly formed a view that he has been unfairly attacked, but no public company has ever gone this far to defend an employee for conduct unrelated to their executive duties. Maybe it’s Kerry Stokes personally who should be turning up every day in court to observe proceedings. After all, none of this would be happening but for Stokes’ preparedness to “run down his bank”, as BRS described it.

When journalist Nick McKenzie first revealed that Seven West Media had lent BRS $1.89 million to fund his various battles, the company was quick to distance itself, telling Nine’s newspapers that Stokes had personally taken on the loan.

A Seven spokesman was quoted at the time saying: “This is no longer a Seven issue. This is a private matter regarding an employee that Seven will not engage in.”

Which begs the original question: why is Seven’s commercial director Bruce McWilliam in court every day and will Kerry Stokes personally pay for the time and effort he is putting into the case?