Dig up, Seven! How did it all go so wrong for the TV giant?

If the week starts on a Sunday, as some insist it does, then Seven’s week started on the worst possible note.

Granted, things were already fairly bad. The week before, the Sydney Morning Herald (owned by Nine) revealed that Seven’s outgoing commercial director, Bruce McWilliam, sent a photo of former Sunrise executive producer Michael Pell covered in blood, with a huge gash on his head, to Herald journalist Zoe Samios. 

Samios had been looking into allegations that Seven launched an internal fraud investigation into Pell’s corporate spending, and McWilliam told her that her professional inquiries had caused the Seven producer to self-harm.

“Why don’t you keep it up so he kills himself,” McWilliam wrote to Samios, in November, 2022. “You are a complete disgrace … If you publish untrue allegations and he tops himself. It’s on you. We are determined to protect him.”

The Herald decided not to run the story due to a journalistic practice known as human decency. Turns out the injuries in the photo weren’t caused by self-harm at all, but “an injury sustained by Pell after he had blacked out on a Los Angeles street.” The expense scandal was covered up. The bullying worked! 

But that was last week’s news. So were juicy revelations of Seven paying for cocaine and hookers for Bruce Lehrmann, but we’ll get to that in a bit. 

So, Sunday morning. It’s just after 6 am, it’s the start of a new week (allegedly), and Weekend Sunrise co-host and very fast runner Matt Shirvington has just named the wrong man as the Bondi Junction mass murderer. 

Sydney university student Benjamin Cohen was wrongly named, first by Shirvo, then again ten minutes later, by reporter Lucy McLeod during a live cross, where she claimed “the attacker, 40-year-old Benjamin Cohen, is known to police,” adding “his motives are not yet know, he was working on his own”.

Luckily, Seven quickly recognised a grave mistake had been made, and corrected the official record when reporter Sarah Jane Bell snuck it in at the end of a live cross, as if it was an AAMI read.

“One last thing,” she basically shrugged, “earlier this morning in reports of the incident, it incorrectly named the perpetrator as Benjamin Cohen. It was later confirmed that the name of the 40-year-old was Joel Cauchi from Queensland. Seven apologies for any distress caused by our earlier reports.”

Back in the studio, Michael Usher confirmed that, “Yes, that’s an important correction, thanks for doing that Sarah Jane.”

Seven said the naming of Cohen was a mistake by news producers, saying it found and fixed the mistake, and issued this statement about 11am on Sunday: “The mistake was human error. It was escalated immediately and rectified. Seven sincerely apologises for the error.”

Glad that’s cleared up. Thanks, Sarah Jane. Back to the books, Cohen! That essay won’t write itself. Probably stay off socials for a bit, too. Close the window. Turn off your phone. 

So, that was Sunday. On to Monday – when Bruce Lehrmann, recent star of Seven’s Walkley finalist for Scoop of the Year, was judged in Federal Court to be a rapist. 

Or – where Ten gets sued and Seven ends up losing. 

Among the many damaging facts that emerged during the discovery period for Lehrmann’s gloriously unsuccessful defamation claim against Ten was that Seven paid Lehrmann’s $2,000-a-week rent for an entire year in exchange for two exclusive interviews on Spotlight. 

Last week we were treated to another fun fact, courtesy of a testimony by Taylor Auerbach, former senior producer on Spotlight. Auerbach claimed that, in securing and keeping their prize catch, Seven reimbursed Lehrmann (“through ‘per diems’ via invoice”) for cocaine and hookers over two nights: the first at the Meriton; the second at a brothel in Surry Hills.  

It also emerged that a while back, Auerbach racked up thousands of dollars on the Seven corporate credit card for expenses he admitted had “nothing to do with work”. It was claimed that he offered to quit; the next week, Seven offered him a promotion and a pay rise. But that’s quaint stuff next to the cocaine and the hookers.

Spotlight’s executive producer, Mark Llewellyn, who Auerbach testified “gave verbal approval” for the Lehrmann reimbursement, quietly resigned shortly after – something Seven confirmed in a nicely timed statement sent to media during the opening minutes of Justice Lee’s judgement against Lehrmann on Monday.

The wording was blunt: “Mark Llewellyn no longer works for the Seven Network”.

Seven also said in a statement:“Seven is appalled by the allegations made in recent days. We do not condone the behaviours described in these allegations. They do not reflect the culture of Seven. Seven did not offer a promotion or pay rise to Mr Auerbach in November 2022, nor did it do so at any time after that. 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.”

That afternoon, Seven’s Chief Marketing and Audience Officer Melissa Hopkins took to LinkedIn in response to a post that claimed the network was “in danger of becoming a liability for clients”. In doing so, she amplified a message that few people initially saw. 

Her ill-timed praise chorus for the network was confusing – eight straight sentences start with “I am proud”, and it reads more like a wellness retreat journalling exercise than a statement by the CMO of a publicly listed company in turmoil (sample quotes: “I am proud of my choice to join this business” / “I am proud to be a leader who steps up in adversity and hard times”).

Hopkins and her pride in stepping up in adversity and hard times will be vital at Seven at this juncture; before landing at the network last year, she spent six-and-a-half years at Optus – also known for recent public PR crashes – and noted in her LinkedIn post that she is “a seasoned senior leader who has worked globally and navigated many businesses through complex challenges, reputational challenges and crises”.

A complex challenge arose Tuesday morning when Auerbach sent a concerns notice threatening to sue then-still-outgoing CEO James Warburton, former commercial director Bruce McWilliam, and Spotlight producer Rob McKnight, alleging all three men had defamed him with various comments and imputations, made after his explosive Federal Court claims.

While all these court cases and threats of court cases whirled around, the Age noted, that another defamation blow for Seven slipped under the rug. On Tuesday, yet another Federal Court judge ruled that Seven was liable to pay around $38,000 in yet another defamation loss – this time against Jarryd Hayne’s mate Mina Greiss, who Seven reported spat at Hayne’s rape victim outside a court. It was a busy week.

By Wednesday, Ben Cohen hired Giles George, one of the country’s best law firms, and is also threatening to sue for defamation over Shirvington’s naming of him.

Thursday morning, as if to help Cohen’s pending legal case against them, Seven Communications sent out a PR email with the heading: Sunrise: Australia’s #1 breakfast show, and the below rosy graphic, giving concrete figures showing exactly how widely Cohen was defamed.

Like all television networks, Seven loves claiming #1.

Warburton famously claimed the 2023 ratings season two months before the end of last year’s rating season, telling me in October: “When you look at it across the board, at any angle, any way you cut it, we’re in an unbeatable position.”

I swear I heard a single black crow at that point.


Thursday afternoon, after a horror week, after what I assume was a horror board meeting, and — most crucially -– after the stock market went to sleep for the day, Warburton’s exit from Seven was finally announced. 

Warburton made some major moves since taking the top job in mid-2019, locking down deals with Cricket Australia, AFL, and NBCUniversal, buying regional network Prime, and taking a fifth of ARN – soon to eat up SCA and effectively control the largest number of stations in Australian commercial radio. He also reduced their debt by around $350 million. 

Warburton is leaving the Seven building with a burning trade reputation, but he is also leaving one with stronger foundations.

Besides, a lot of the corporate reputational damage Seven has suffered of late has been at the hands of their chairman Kerry Stokes, the man behind the baffling decision to financially back Ben Robert-Smith’s disastrous defamation claim against Nine. Officially, this arrangement was between BRS and Stokes’ private company Australian Capital Equity – but the stench has stuck to Seven. Mostly, because Stokes wouldn’t stop going on about how much of a hero Roberts-Smith was, well past the point he was demonstrably not.

Nine journo Nick McKenzie, whose reporting of the numerous horrific war crimes committed by Ben Roberts-Smith was the subject of the defamation lawsuit, told 7.30: “This is a media proprietor who should believe in journalism, yet he was waging a huge war against investigative journalism.”

This is true. It hurt Seven. Despite the verdict being obvious to all for weeks, as one heinous crime after another was trotted out in front of the court, The West Australian published one last print feature a few hours before the axe fell with the grasping headline “War Hero’s Moment Of Truth”. 

Technically this headline was correct: Roberts-Smith was a decorated war hero, and this was certainly the moment in which his truth was revealed.

Justice Anthony Besanko ruled that, on the balance of probabilities, Nine was correct in reporting  “the following imputations” (deep breath):

Ben Roberts-Smith “murdered an unarmed and defenceless Afghan civilian, by kicking him off a cliff and procuring the soldiers under his command to shoot him”, “committed murder by pressuring a newly deployed and inexperienced SASR soldier to execute an elderly, unarmed Afghan in order to ‘blood the rookie’”; “committed murder by machine gunning a man in Afghanistan with a prosthetic leg, is so callous and inhumane that he took the prosthetic leg back to Australia and encouraged his soldiers to use it as a novelty beer drinking vessel”; and “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement and is therefore a criminal.”

There was more about BRS having “disgraced his country Australia and the Australian army”, but the point was made: Stokes backed a war criminal, to the tune of a cool $25-$35 million in estimated costs.

But credit where credit’s due. One good Stokes decision has been to allow the dominating West Australian editorial team — albeit the one behind the aforementioned headline — to move East and launch The Nightly, a digital play designed to take a bigger slice of the East-coast digital news market. This is a good move.

The Nightly’s editor-in-chief is Anthony De Ceglie, the current (and continuing) editor-in-chief of West Australian, who told me on the day of launch they will be delivering  “commonsense, mainstream middle” reporting. 

I applaud this initiative, but such neutrality may prove challenging, considering The Nightly’s financial backers include Harvey Norman’s Katie Page, Mineral Resources founder Chris Ellison, and mining magnate Gina Rinehart, while advertising support comes from fossil fuels (Woodside) and gambling (Ladbrokes). This is no problem for the right-leaning West Australian, but “mainstream middle” is a difficult tightrope walk.

Then there are the journos, and their own leanings. Among the Nightly high profile signings are The Australian’s Chris Dore, who launched at The Nightly with a four-part takedown of Labour PM Anthony Albanese’s first two years in power, and Kristin Shorten, who recently wrote a series of fawning articles for The Australian praising a policeman who shot dead a 19-year-old Aboriginal – a policeman who is mates with her policeman husband, a policeman who she messaged two days after the killing, saying: “I know what you did was totally warranted. If you ever want me to write an article in your defence, with or without naming you, say the word”, a policeman she told to “ignore the leftist reporting”, offering to cover the incident “without naming you or quoting you so it sounds like we never spoke.”


What a week! Personally, I love Seven. But I’m a viewer. I don’t work there. And I don’t advertise with them. If I did, I would probably have concerns. I mostly watch Blue Heelers reruns and Matildas games. Seven are excellent for providing those, plus much more, which means all this murky controversy won’t actually hurt them in the eyes of the average viewer. This isn’t Optus, where everyone is furious, or Medibank, where everyone is scared of hackers. The general public either don’t know or just find it sleazy. Because it is sleazy. Sunrise will continue to be #1, and Seven News will continue to be #1, and Warburton can be genuinely please he left Seven in #1 position. So that’s the good news.

But there is still a lot of reputational damage done. And, seemingly, a lot institutional bullshit to rat out and stomp. 

All eyes will be on the new CEO and former CFO, Jeff Howard, to fix this. And, I hope he does. Obviously. But chuck a glance Kerry Stokes’ way, too. It might be time for Seven to be rid of the guy backing these baffling decisions, time to get him a nice little chair in the sun overlooking the mining slag heaps he helped thrive over the last half-century, and just let his son drive the car for a while.

Or, sell it for parts, and focus on Boral – which he also owns. After all, there’s a housing shortage, and entertainment is cheap.

Enjoy your weekend.


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