Ten loses bid to stop programmer John Stephens returning to Seven

Ten logosevenNetwork Ten has lost a legal bid to prevent programmer John Stephens from working for two years for rival Seven Network after it alleged he breached a contract with Ten.

Seven accused Ten of trying to buy an “uncompetitive result” by attempting to stop the veteran programmer from working for either them or Nine for two years, after he signed a contract with Ten in April, before changing his mind and deciding to remain with Seven.

Today in The NSW Supreme Court Justice James Stephenson handed down his judgement in the case, ruling the Ten agreement remains “on foot”, however dismissed its claim for relief including preventing Stephens from working for Ten’s rivals for the next two years.

He also found that Seven actively set out to get Stephens to change his mind about the Ten contract and offered him a matching offer at Seven and that this behaviour was a “contributing cause” and a significant factor” in Stephen’s decision to back out of the agreement with Ten.

“Through its senior executives, Seven set out to persuade Mr Stephens to change his mind and stay with Seven,” he concluded in his judgement.

“Those senior executives made an extraordinarily generous offer to Mr Stephens… which they knew would cause Mr Stephens to rethink his position.”

Whilst the ruling leaves the door open for Ten to try and enforce its contract with Stephens through legal routes it is unclear whether that will happen.

In the ruling it was revealed that Seven offered Stephens a deal worth “four times the money he was earning” under his previous agreement with Seven.

He also stated that: “…they (Seven) urged him to stay at Seven, knowing that would involve breaching his agreement with Ten”.

“In my opinion, Mr Stephens would not have acted as he did absent Seven’s conduct”.

A spokesman for Seven claimed the decision exonerated the network’s conduct in the affair.

“We are pleased that this annoying attempt at distraction by Ten is concluded. We are pleased that Mr Stephens is able to continue to work for Seven and not take up the generous offer from Ten to be paid for two years to do nothing. This offer undoubtedly would have set a new precedent for our industry.”

However, Ten also claimed a victory after the decision, with CEO Hamish McLennan saying the Network was vindicated by the ruling.

“The ruling that Mr Stephens’ contract with Ten remains on foot vindicates our position. The court has found that our contract is valid and binding,” he said.

“We stated from the outset that our aim was to get to the truth of what happened after Mr Stephens signed a contract with our company.”

The judge asked both parties to decide on costs between themselves.

In a statement from Seven, Stephens said: “The past few weeks have been a chapter in my life I could have certainly lived without and perhaps both Ten and Seven feel the same way. It is disappointing the situation had to progress all the way to the Supreme Court, but I guess that is part of the competitive nature of our business.

“Regardless, I am relieved the legal stoush is now done and dusted and I can now concentrate more fully on my consultancy role with Seven. I have been a part of a great team and its success over the past decade and I am looking forward to continuing to be a part of this team.”

Justice Stephenson said the question of whether Stephens contract with ten could be enforced “best considered if and when Ten seeks to take further action.”

He indicated the parties should confer on costs but indicated he was willing to hear the parties on the matter if the need arose.

Ten CEO and chairman Hamish McLennan had negotiated a contract with Stephens to join the network for two years as director of programming and acquisitions, working three days a week, with one from home, with the support of Beverley McGarvey, chief  programming officer at Ten, and her team of programmers and producers.

However after Stephens agreed to the deal, said to have included a large remuneration package, he backed out, and Counsel for Ten previously argued this was a result of his communication with executives at Seven about his resignation from the network and decision to move to Network Ten.

A spokesman for Ten said it was too early to say if the company was considering going back to court.

In a two-day hearing earlier this month it was revealed McLennan had been prepared to pay Stephens his full salary for two years not to work for anyone, alongside a series of embarrassing revelations which included McLennan not being able to name all of the programming directors for free-to-air TV networks in Australia.

At the time McLennan said Stephens was the only person who could turn Ten’s fortunes around, with the third free-to-air network losing audience share and revenues from advertisers.

Robert Burton-Bradley


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