Why is billionaire Kerry Stokes funding the media defamation action of Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith against Nine Newspapers? He gave the reason to Callum Foote, directly and in person at today’s Seven annual meeting.
“Ben Roberts-Smith is innocent, deserves legal representation and that it’s scumbag journalists who should be held to account and quote me on that”. That was Kerry Stokes immediately after the Seven West AGM held in Seven’s offices in Eveleigh this morning.
Attending the Seven West annual general meeting (AGM), held in one of Seven’s labyrinthine sound stages, MWM was able to ask the chairman and majority shareholder Stokes and the board of the company questions directly. MWM was the only one present to ask questions, attending as a proxy shareholder, with the meeting being broadcast on Seven’s website.
Among the questions was whether it was proper that the company’s legal chief Bruce McWilliam was attending former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith’s court hearings for the defamation action being brought by Roberts-Smith against Fairfax Media.
Roberts-Smith’s case is being funded personally by Stokes and Roberts-Smith is himself an executive director of the company, albeit on leave.
Responding, McWilliam said that “We do attend, it doesn’t take much time. Most of the hearings, due to Covid protocols, were held via Zoom.”
McWilliam said that his attendance at the trial, as the company’s senior legal chief, was to answer reporters’ questions about the legality of publishing confidential information. “We also have news reporting on the case to we get legal questions as to what was being said and what can’t be said because it’s not clear because a lot of the evidence was held in closed court and couldn’t be divulged. So thanks for your question, but I’m not sure that it’s a very controversial thing that someone from the company went to listen to the hearing,” he said.
Bruce McWilliam is Seven West’s Commercial Director and was paid $1.67m by shareholders in 2021-22.
Stokes responded that not a cent of company money nor any time had been spent on Roberts-Smith’s case.
After the AGM was finished, Stokes told this reporter that:
Ben Roberts-Smith is innocent and deserves legal representation and that it’s scumbag journalists who should be held to account and you can quote me on that.
Stokes’ wanted his comments relayed to journalist and shareholder advocate Stephen Mayne. But the comments are more likely to have been made in regards to allegations against Roberts-Smith made in articles by investigative reporters Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters and David Wroe Nine Newspapers (formerly Fairfax).
Per The Australian Financial Review, Stokes has denied making the comments.
MWM stands by its version of events.
Another Afghanistan imbroglio
The meeting opened with a pre-recorded welcome to country before the billionaire stepped up. Stokes’ son Ryan was appointed CEO of Seven News’ parent company Seven Group Holdings.
Both Kerry Stokes and James Warburton, the managing director and chief executive of Seven West Media, spoke at length about the importance of supporting popular Australian sport. These comments were made in relation to the AFL, for which Seven has won the broadcast rights, and for the first time digital rights, from 2025-29.
But one sport has bought conflict. Seven West is suing Cricket Australia, the sport’s governing body, to end Channel Seven’s six-year $450 million TV rights deal for Test cricket and the Big Bash League.
“They are being sued by Seven right now for misrepresentation,’’ Stokes said. ‘’They promised a certain quantity of games at the Big Bash and they didn’t deliver that and we didn’t think that Afghanistan was a suitable alternative to one of the main countries as a Test so our issues with Australian Cricket go to the quality of offering compared to the quality we paid for.”
The inaugural Test between Australia and Afghanistan was scheduled for 2020 but postponed because of Covid-19. Rescheduled for 2021, the game was cancelled because of the Taliban regime’s suppression of women’s cricket.
Double booking to thwart scrutiny?
Three of the past five years, including today, Seven West and Nine have held their AGM’s on the same day. According to Stephen Mayne, this significant coincidence makes it difficult for analysts, journalists and shareholder advocates to engage with both companies at their AGMs. Nor does Seven West offer a hybrid AGM where online viewers can engage with the AGM through voting or questions.
There has been a significant move towards such hybrid AGMS with many companies also providing transcripts such as the likes of Nine, AGL, ASX, ANZ, Domino’s and Lendlease which all produced their first AGM transcripts in 2021.
”It is ridiculous that the Nine and Seven AGMs have clashed in three of the past five years,” Mayne told MWM. ”They are both members of Free TV Australia and presumably have to work together on the timing of their AGM so why not co-ordinate to a void a clash of AGMs to help those people who follow both companies.”