The fallout from Bruce Lehrmann’s interview with Spotlight risks what remains of Network Seven’s reputation

The fallout from Bruce Lehrmann’s interview with Spotlight risks what remains of Network Seven’s reputation
  • PublishedApril 6, 2024

The fallout from Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten in the wake of new allegations about how Channel Seven’s Spotlight program secured its exclusive interview with him is having major ramifications for the network’s owner, Seven West Media.

With the explosive case returning to the Federal Court on Thursday and Friday, Seven executives are dealing with escalating reputational damage that threatens the future of its Spotlight program.

Mr Lehrmann launched the defamation case against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson after his trial over the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins was abandoned with no findings against him.

But, even though it is not a defendant or plaintiff in the defamation proceedings, Seven has been effectively put on public trial over the company’s journalistic ethics.

Away from the court, frantic damage control is underway by executives at the Seven Network (owned by Seven West Media) given the bombshell allegations detailing how Seven secured its exclusive interview with the former Liberal staffer.

In the Federal Court on Thursday, former Seven Network producer Taylor Auerbach gave evidence about several payments he claimed were made to Mr Lehrmann before he agreed to the interview with Spotlight.

Mr Auerbach alleged in court on Thursday those payments included reimbursing Mr Lehrmann for money he spent on illicit drugs and sex workers, but conceded he never saw a record of any payment being received.

In a statement issued after the court hearing on Thursday, a Seven Network spokesman said it was “appalled” by the allegations, and said Seven “did not reimburse Bruce Lehrmann for expenditure that has allegedly been used to pay for illegal drugs or prostitutes, and has never done so”.

As the new allegations are questioned in the Federal Court in Sydney, media commentators say the case raises significant questions about the Seven Network as a business and its ethics as a media company.

Billionaire Stokes in control of Seven empire

With the Federal Court re-opening Mr Lehrmann’s defamation case, media commentator and shareholder activist Stephen Mayne said it has inadvertently put the focus on the culture at the Seven Network, ultimately set by its major shareholder, Western Australian billionaire Kerry Stokes.

“It continues a bit of a pattern which I think is significantly damaging,” Mr Mayne told the ABC’s AM program.

“Kerry Stokes has a history of backing his talent even when there are cultural issues and controversy,” Mr Mayne said.

In 2016, then-Seven chief executive Tim Worner was embroiled in a high-profile scandal with executive assistant Amber Harrison. Mr Worner resigned from the company in 2019.

Mr Stokes also financially supported Ben Roberts-Smith, a former SAS commander who lost his high-profile defamation case against Nine over its expose of his alleged war crimes, and will pay millions of dollars to cover the rival media outlet’s legal bills.

A former executive at Seven Queensland, Mr Roberts-Smith maintains his innocence and has lodged an appeal against the judgement.

“Kerry Stokes is normally loyal, perhaps too loyal when people cross the line,” Mr Mayne said.

“I think that’s worked against him and he needs to move quickly to fix this issue.”

A spotlight on Spotlight

One potential solution could be the shuttering of Seven’s Spotlight program altogether — similar to Rupert Murdoch’s decision to shut down The News of The World at the height of the phone hacking scandal in Britain, Mr Mayne said.

“It looks like they (Seven) will shut down Spotlight,” he said.

“Well-briefed articles in the Murdoch press … suggest Kerry Stokes is furious and the program is under review.

“It’s a relatively new program, and of course, programs come and go in commercial television. But I’m expecting that Spotlight will no longer have much spotlight on it when it’s shut down.

“They (Spotlight) clearly backed the wrong horse. There’s been inappropriate payments, and conduct and behaviour which points to culture and judgement. It’s done a lot of damage.

“And it does raise questions as to who’s in charge at Seven and whether they should still be in charge.”

Seven Network's logo on a building
The Seven Network has found itself embroiled in Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

Last year, the Federal Court heard the Seven Network agreed to pay Mr Lehrmann’s rent which cost $4,000 a fortnight for a year, in exchange for him speaking exclusively to the network. Over 12 months, the cost totals more than $100,000.

When Mr Lehrmann’s first interview aired in June last year, a Seven spokesperson told the ABC that he was not paid for the interview, but the program assisted with accommodation as part of the filming of the report.

According to Refinitiv data, the ASX-listed Seven Group, which is controlled by Mr Stokes and run by his son Ryan as CEO, owns more than 40 per cent of Seven West Media.

Mr Stokes is the chairman of Seven West Media, while his son Ryan is also a non-executive director on the company’s seven-person board.

Mr Mayne believes that the reputational crisis facing the Seven Network would be different if its ownership was more diverse.

“I do think that if Channel Seven was a normal company and not controlled by a billionaire, I think that you might have a slightly different culture,” Mr Mayne said.

“I don’t think it is suitable for someone like Kerry Stokes to have almost total control over a television network.

“That would be better (for Seven West Media) if it was widely owned by a large number of shareholders rather than one.”

An old man in a suit smiles.
As chair of Seven West Media, Kerry Stokes has publicly backed high-profile men embroiled in controversy.(AAP Image: Richard Wainwright)

A question of ethics and trust

The hotly contested allegations about how Seven managed to obtain the exclusive interview with Mr Lehrmann also erodes people’s trust in the media, according to media ethics specialist at the University of Melbourne, Dennis Muller.

A former journalist, Dr Muller told ABC News Channel that Mr Lehrmann’s tell-all on Spotlight was an example of “chequebook journalism”, where media outlets pay substantial amounts of cash to secure exclusive, high-profile interviews.

“Generally speaking, chequebook journalism brings with it a lot of problems. The first one is a problem of why — why has someone asked for information which is important enough to be in the public domain? Why has a media organisation decided to spend money buying it?” he said.

“The second is transparency. Very often in these cases, deals are done as part of the transaction, where agreements are made not to ask certain questions, or to put a certain spin on the story, and so the story presented is not a story which might have been presented had there not been money involved, and then you’ve got a problem about transparency to the audience … so they’re actually not seeing what they think they see.

“I think in all of this, you’ve got questions of editorial control … so the question is, is the journalist or the media outlet in charge of the story, or is the informant in charge of the story?”

Dr Muller said the allegations of inappropriate expenditure, which the Seven Network has denied, ultimately lower people’s trust in an age where misinformation is rife.

“It lowers people’s trust in the institution of the media at a time when really our democracy can’t afford any further diminution of trust in our institutions,” he said.

“If people lose faith in the professional mass media, then they don’t know where to go for the truth, because our first job as journalists is to tell the truth, and there’s so much misinformation around the place that people are confused about where to go.”

Dr Muller said he would like to see a “unified, effective media accountability organisation”, and for chequebook journalism to be included in the codes of ethics for the Press Council and broadcast industry, and specifically mentioned in the journalist code of ethics.

Journalists who are members of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) are required to follow the union’s dedicated journalist code of ethics, which states members must: “Do your utmost to ensure disclosure of any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures, information or stories.” The standard does not apply to journalists who are not members of the MEAA, or media outlets.

Print and digital media outlets are subjected to guidelines and standards set by the Australian Press Council, while there are several industry bodies for broadcasting, including Free TV Australia, and the government regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

“I think a good starting point would be to include reference to chequebook journalism and the risks involved,” Dr Muller said.

“I don’t think in the end, you can probably stop it happening. But you’re going to at least draw people’s attention to the risks and the ethical problems involved.”


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