The Weekend Mumbo: What the hell was Kerry Stokes thinking?

Welcome to the Weekend Mumbo

It’s not ageist or unreasonable to say that Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes is nearing the end of his illustrious tenure. He’s 82, after all.

And so, with the clock running out and some final pen strokes needed to complete the masterpiece of modern folklore that will be his formidable legacy, you’ve got to wonder… what the hell was he thinking? And is he still thinking the same way?

Why would such a giant of the Australian media and business landscape weld himself so unquestioningly, both personally and financially, to someone who a court determined on the balance of probabilities is a murderer.

Justice Anthony Besanko found that The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times were able to prove that Ben Roberts-Smith was a war criminal who unlawfully killed and assaulted unarmed Afghan prisoners. It was also found that he had bullied a fellow soldier.

A man who Stokes befriended, parachuted into a plum TV executive job he didn’t seem to be qualified for, and financially supported in his failed defamation case.

Again, you’ve got to ask… what was he thinking? Given his extraordinary life story, why take such a risk?

Stokes spent much of his childhood in poverty and dropped out of school in his early teens. He bounced around between odd jobs and, as he once revealed to the ABC, spent “some time on the streets”. Somehow, from those gruelling beginnings, he built himself into one of the most revered figures in business, overseeing not just a media empire but a series of private investments that have given him an estimated net worth of $6 billion.

I guess then that potentially having to cough up $30 million to pay for Roberts-Smith’s legal fees won’t exactly burn a hole in his pocket.

Nor will the millions more required to fight an appeal, which Roberts-Smith – who maintains his innocence – lodged this week. Will Stokes continue to cough up? We asked. His spokesman didn’t respond. Read into that silence what you will.

But his unquestioning defence of Roberts-Smith should give Seven West Media’s clients, shareholders and board cause for reflection.

For brands, what comfort level is there in doing business with a company helmed by a man who remains steadfastly shackled to Roberts-Smith? What moral imperative is there for those who splash huge amounts of money on ads on his network?

For those who sit around Stokes’ board room table, at what point do you pipe up and express concern?

For those who choose to invest in his interests, could your dollars not go somewhere a little less icky?

What does Stokes have to gain from taking such a dogged and stubborn stance? If the answer is nothing… well, perhaps some difficult conversations need to be had.

Seven has tried to distance itself from the actions of its owner, but when his presence looms so large, it’s absurd that the company should have nothing to say publicly.

In addition, Roberts-Smith’s mega defamation lawsuit was an attack on the fourth estate. Press freedom was at substantial risk. He sought to discredit some of the most accomplished and dedicated reporters in Australia.

And he did it with the backing of Stokes.

Did Stokes have some sort of sway in how his company’s news division covered – or didn’t cover – the allegations against Roberts-Smith? Were investigative journalists forced or made to feel forced to not pursue the story with the same ferocity that their rival peers did? Did the former soldier get special treatment thanks to his cosy contact with the big boss?

Who can say? But such questions and perceptions are entirely fair when the billionaire who pays the wages of journalists has such questionable friends.

In a world full of grey, this seems pretty black-and-white to me. Seven’s big boss is good buddies with someone declared by a court to be a murderer. Judge a man by the company he keeps.

The rest of the week

And in more pleasant news, the country has been turned pink. No, it’s not a delayed celebration of Pride Month, but of the original queen of campness, Barbie. The much-anticipated film of the year finally hits the big screens next week, months after the world’s most elaborate marketing campaign kicked off.

The collaboration with Airbnb to create a real-life Barbie Dream House. An AR takeover of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Sparkly billboards and pink bus stops. And a seemingly endless stream of replicas of Barbie’s best outfits from the past several decades worn by Margot Robbie.

A masterclass in strategic branding, but hardly a surprise given this is how Barbie has always done things, as Rachel Tucker wrote in this guest post.

Also everywhere at the moment is Threads, Mark Zuckerberg’s answer to Twitter. As I write this, more than 110 million users have signed up to the new social media platform. I’ve ventured on myself and it very much reminds me of the early days of Twitter, when people were friendly and cheerful. The functionality is just as primitive, but Meta insists new features will roll out soon.

Our recently minted deputy editor Nathan Jolly has been keeping you updated on all of the Threads action, including the historic take-up of the platform.

Elon Musk isn’t pleased about the success and has launched a lawsuit claiming Zuckerberg has taken someone else’s hard work and pretends it’s entirely his own. Kind of like that electric car company he ‘founded’.

Another displeased person is the boss of independent research firm COMvergence. As we revealed, concerns remain unaddressed over its recent agency billings report, with complaints about the questionable accuracy of some very big figures.

If you want to have a look at how a sausage is made, here’s a whirlwind tour of the snag factory.

When Lauren McNamara first began sniffing around about the story, COMvergence told us it would investigate. Then it said it would reissue the report. Neither of those things happened. Then, despite its independence, it seemingly tipped off the agency in question about our upcoming story and the phone began ringing. Then when our follow-up this week threatened to overshadow the release of COMvergence’s global agency billings report, we copped a furious threat to be excluded from future releases.

I mean, when you won’t explain how you collect, analyse and verify your numbers, and some of them seem to be utter bullshit, we won’t be devastated if we don’t get it in the future. So, exclude away.


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