Hamish Rutherford: MediaWorks directors seem set on lying low after blistering review

OPINION

After sending its new chief executive Cam Wallace out to front a damning review into workplace culture, the board of MediaWorks seems determined to lie low.

While the media company says it has accepted the findings of a damning report by Maria Dew QC, the directors are refusing to answer any questions, including about what appears to be a serious allegation.

“I think our statements regarding Maria Dew’s report are clear,” chairman Jack Matthews said in a text message after the Herald requested an interview.

“The board accepts the findings of the report and is committed to support [chief executive] Cam [Wallace] as he addresses the issues raised in the report.”

The company requested questions in writing for Matthews, who is also chairman of network giant Chorus and fellow NZX-listed company Plexure. But after a series of questions were provided, a spokeswoman said its chairman refused to comment.

Michael Anderson, who was both chief executive and a board member during the period covered by Dew’s report, has not responded to requests for comment at all.

Dew’s report highlighted issues current and former staff felt about alleged bullying, the use of drugs at work events, sexist behaviour and harassment and a gender pay gap.

But it also detailed a troubling incident that took place at a promotional event for its commercial radio business.

Although Dew does not use the word, it is hard to escape the idea that she believed the investigation was botched. She certainly points the finger at the former chief executive and board.

The alleged incident took place in 2019. A group of young people, aged 18 to 25, who had won a competition were taken on a trip with a group of staff from Mediaworks.

There, according to Dew, the young woman became so drunk she could remember little of what happened.

The following day she had to contact a senior member of Mediaworks staff to confirm that sexual contact was made.

While Dew’s report made it clear that she was not making factual findings about particular incidents, she documents what she describes as a series of errors in the inquiry that followed which added up to in her view an “inadequate” internal investigation and MediaWorks underestimating the gravity of the incident.

Dew made it clear that she believed this was a collective failing of senior management responsible for the problems. “The CEO and ultimately the Board at the time, all had some involvement in the decision making.”

While the incident should have been taken seriously whenever it happened, the fact that it took place in 2019 should be relevant.

It occurred well after the #MeToo movement had caused a reckoning in companies around the world about workplace behaviour. It also occurred in New Zealand’s modern health and safety legislation, where directors have a positive responsibility to seek out risks in the businesses.

“I can be jailed if I ignore my health and safety responsibilities and there’s a serious harm incident,” Wellington employment lawyer Steph Dyhrberg told the Herald this week in reference to her responsibilities as a company director.

Precisely how the incident was characterised to MediaWorks’ directors is unclear, and Matthews is not talking.

He may well want simply to focus on fixing the problems, but given the seriousness of the alleged incident and what appears to be its mishandling, it is possible the board is now a key aspect of MediaWorks’ problem.

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