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Issue #1766      February 22, 2017

Abuse and criminal behaviour allegations

This week Seven West Media (SWM), which runs Channel Seven, will seek a permanent ban on public statements by former executive assistant Amber Harrison about her period of employment with the company.

David Horner and Amber Harrison.

The case, which concerns an affair between Harrison and SWM’s chief executive, David Horner, is remarkable because of extreme actions the company has taken to silence Harrison and recover company information and equipment they say she retains.

After the affair ended in July 2014 an internal accounting investigation was carried out and Harrison was charged with misusing credit cards and making purchases amounting to $14,000.

She admitted the offence, but later pointed out that senior staff frequently played “fast and loose” with credit cards, and that she was the only person among 4,000 SWM employees who had been investigated.

She also publicly revealed her affair with Horner. The company claimed it was “inappropriate” and docked him $100,000, but later promoted him from head of TV to chief executive.

Harrison was not dismissed over the credit card misuse, allegedly because of her poor health, and in an astonishing move in October 2014 the company offered her $100,000 (minus the $14,000) on condition that she return a mobile phone, laptop and copies of emails and SMS transmissions, and enter into a confidentiality agreement.

SWM subsequently claimed she hadn’t met these conditions, and hired accountancy firm Deloittes to further investigate her financial transactions. They alleged she had undertaken questionable transactions amounting to $262,000.

Harrison denied this, but the company sacked her immediately. She took them to court, and SWM offered her another $350,000 on condition of confidentiality and the return of the company property.

SWM paid $250,000 plus $50,000 for her legal costs, but then claimed she’d discussed the case with journalists, made copies of the documents, and retained the property.

In December last year Harrison alleged publicly that sexual abuse of female employees was common in SWM, that Horner had also misused company credit cards and used cocaine, and that their relationship had adversely affected his professional conduct and her work.

The company denied those allegations and hired lawyers Allens Linklater to investigate SWM’s activities and review the 2014 Deloittes investigation.

Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, now an SWM board member, claims that female members of the company’s staff interviewed by Allens Linklater have rejected Harrison’s allegations and “taken action to defend their reputations”, and that the investigation has exonerated Horner from the allegation of credit card misuse.

In February SWM obtained a temporary injunction prohibiting Harrison from further public discussion of the issues. They also threatened her with action under the Proceeds of Crimes Act, and warned other media organisations not to reproduce her tweets about the case.

However, Kennett himself may have breached the injunction by engaging Harrison in a Twitter battle on the day the injunction was issued!

What secrets are in the phone, laptop and documents?

On February 4 this year Harrison declared “The lesson for women is don’t work for Seven West Media and [don’t] expect to be treated equally and with respect. Male executives at Seven West Media have just been given the green light to prey on female staff, and if there is any objection Seven will smash you with their legal juggernauts.”

The mobile phone, laptop and documents may contain material confirming those allegations. It passes belief that SWM would pay Ms Harrison $380,000 to regain the property if it was only to avoid further embarrassment from the release of “more salacious emails or texts”, as Kennett claimed.

Moreover, Kennett’s odd statement about certain women having “taken action to defend their reputations” implies they stand accused of having willingly had affairs with male executives. But that wasn’t Harrison’s allegation at all. She said they were unwilling victims, and if she’s right, it isn’t their reputations that need defending but those of the male executives.

Was Kennett’s statement a subtle hint that the women’s reputations would be under threat if they confirmed Harrison’s allegation of abuse? None of the female employees have publicly rejected the allegations, and Sheila McGregor, a non-executive director of the company, resigned the day before release of the Allens Linklater report, sparking rumours that she disagreed strongly with its findings.

For his part, SWM chairman Kerry Stokes has referred to Harrison’s allegations as irrelevant and insubstantial. But he himself has described the company’s payments to her as “compensation”, seemingly a tacit admission that she herself was the victim of abuse.

A picture is now emerging of a company where sexual abuse and bullying are commonplace, and where protest will lead to reprisals, if necessary by brutal legal force.

And that’s not all. Evidence provided during a 2014 court case referred to payment by Channel 7 of $25,000 to Mercedes Corby regarding her sister, convicted drug smuggler Schappelle Corby.

SWC denied making any payment, but profiting from crime is a criminal offence, and the Australian Federal Police subsequently raided SWC’s office, with warrants to prevent the proceeds of crime going overseas. They failed to find incriminating evidence. SWC then sued the AFP, and received a public apology for “unnecessary reputational damage”.

However, on February 9 Harrison tweeted images of a 2014 email from a Channel 7 executive, saying “We got Mercedes signature late last night. So very close.” The E-mail was sent two days before Schappelle Corby was released from prison.

Harrison sent another image of an email sent by an executive during the AFP raid, assuring the company it had nothing to worry about, and saying “It isn’t an offence to pay money and the authorities are entitled to go after the payee”.

If the feisty Harrison can produce evidence from the phone, laptop and documents that sexual misconduct is rife within the company’s ranks, and/or that SWM did actually pay Mercedes Corby, the sky will fall upon the company’s corporate head. That possibility would certainly make sense of SWM’s payment of $380,000 to Harrison.

But will this week’s court hearing reveal the answers? As they say, watch this space.

Next article – Torture treaty and offshore detention

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