MediaWorks review a wakeup call for whole industry

The media outlets that reported and commented so fulsomely about a Queen’s Counsel’s damning report on the culture within broadcaster MediaWorks now face their own challenge. Will they turn the spotlight on themselves?

Each organisation has its own culture, and it would be wrong – or at least premature – to tar them with the same brush. However, there are common elements that suggest few are likely to have an entirely clean bill of cultural health.

Media mix a rare cocktail in their workplaces. Its ingredients are celebrity, competitiveness, ego, elitism, hardness, pressure, pride, tribalism, and a varying number of secret herbs and spices that make it a unique industry. The taste of the cocktail will change from workplace to workplace but there are enough common ingredients to leave drinkers with a sore head.

Maria Dew QC’s report into MediaWorks may be a worst case, but we don’t know that for certain because no other media organisation has laid itself open to the same level of independent scrutiny and disclosure. I’m not suggesting that there is a toxic culture within every media organisation but is there no bullying, no misuse of alcohol, no harassment (sexual or otherwise), and no gender inequality in those enterprises?

Dew’s overview painted a picture of a ‘boys’ club’ culture characterised by “on-going sexist and racist behaviours, repeated minimising of sexual harassment, failure to promote greater gender diversity, the misuse of alcohol and drugs and the lack of accountability for poor behaviour”. She also cited bullying behaviour and gender equity issues.

MediaWorks CEO Cam Wallace publicly released Dew’s report at noon last Wednesday, sparking a flurry of reports in competing media and on its affiliate Newshub.

Newshub carried straight (but none the less damning) coverage of the report under the heading MediaWorks investigation uncovers multiple sexual assault, racism, sexism, drug use allegations, CEO ‘unreservedly apologises’. Its story included details of an incident (a catalyst for Dew’s investigation) involving a young female competition winner suffering serious psychological distress after a sexual incident with a much older MediaWorks employee.

The young woman’s ordeal was also highlighted by the New Zealand Herald, Stuff, TVNZ, and RNZ although all also canvassed the litany of failings stretching back over several years. The Spinoff chose to provide an explainer about the Dew report for the time poor, beginning with ‘What’s the tldr* on the report?’

These news reports were followed over succeeding days by commentaries that avoided also pointing the finger at other media.

Alison Mau, founder of the #metooNZ investigation into sexual harassment, confined herself to an examination of Dew’s findings in her Sunday Star Times column.

Rosemary McLeod, writing in the Dominion Post and other Stuff newspapers, recalled her own past experiences in media workplaces, but gave the impression that, with the possible exception of MediaWorks, they related to a bygone age: “The past is a place you can’t explain if you haven’t been there. Dew’s report suggests MediaWorks is still stuck there, though…”

However, writing in the New Zealand Herald, Lizzie Marvelly at least hinted that MediaWorks may not be an entirely isolated case. Recalling media and entertainment industry functions she had attended, she added: “In industries seen to be ‘glamorous’ to work in, characterised by a ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos, there is often a disregard for rules and regulations as management wilfully overlooks the misconduct of the celebrities and senior staff that make businesses so much money.” Sound familiar?

And Damian Venuto, also writing in the Herald, highlighted broader issues of host responsibility (cited by Dew in relation to the competition winner) and the slow growth of toxic cultures within businesses. He concluded: “Dew’s report might mark the beginning of the end for cultural rot at MediaWorks, but it should also be the start of a serious conversation across the rest of corporate New Zealand.”

Media organisations hold others to account and will undoubtedly do so when there is another MediaWorks or Russell McVeagh revelation that demands steely-eyed review by the likes of Maria Dew or Dame Margaret Bazley. They would do considerable good in their own workplaces and for their standing with the public if they undertook independent audits of their own culture. Stuff has shown the way with its Diversity and Inclusion Audit but that addresses only some of the elements that contribute to internal culture.

MediaWorks may (should) now take the lead and signalled its willingness in the media release announcing release of the Dew Report. Its chief executive said: “Today is a pivotal moment in MediaWorks’ history and is not only a step forward for long-term change in our workplace, but for the wider media industry”.

Cam Wallace was widely praised for the transparency he applied to Maria Dew’s findings. Venuto described him as “an executive who had the guts to conduct an in-depth analysis of the culture that enabled the level of wrongdoing [at MediaWorks]”.

Being relatively new to his job was a benefit because none of the transgressions highlighted by the report occurred on his watch. It also means he has not been immersed in the culture that turned so toxic.

However, he will be held accountable for what happens now. That accountability will be even more acute because the MediaWorks board has maintained a silence beyond saying it will let him get on with the job.

Hamish Rutherford in the Business Herald accused the board of ‘lying low’ and concluded that “…given the seriousness of the alleged incident [the competition winner] and what appears to be its mishandling, it is possible the board is now a key aspect of MediaWorks’ problem.” That level of governance will not be for Wallace to fix. The board must look to itself.

Anyway, his task in dealing with the operational levels of the company will be daunting enough. He began well by apologising to present and former staff for “MediaWorks’ failures over the past years to adequately respond to complaints of misconduct, and for the harm that this has caused”.

He says the company will develop an action plan around implementing all 32 of Dew’s recommendations. It is due to be released within the next three months and, given the level of transparency that Wallace has already delivered, it will almost certainly be made public.

The action plan needs to find ways of achieving aims that Dew has couched in sometimes deceptively simple terms. No-one under-estimates the difficulty in changing ingrained attitudes but even redressing significant gender pay gaps needs to achieved within finite budgets in a tight advertising market. Wallace and his senior team (which includes a fellow former Air New Zealand executive, Jeff McDowall, who is chief operating officer) need to find ways to strike the appropriate balance between expectation and the ability to deliver. Delivery may take time and part of their challenge will be to manage staff and public expectations. The plan must therefore set out timelines as well as action points.

The plan is the next step but the reputation of Media Works, its chief executive, and its board will hinge on what follows. So far Wallace has danced a faultless three-step: Appointing Maria Dew, accepting her warts-and-all report, and making it public. On the basis of that track record the action plan should also make the grade.

However, changing culture is no easy task. Nor is weeding out regressive employees. The solution will be like Pantene shampoo: The shine won’t happen overnight. Wallace and his team need to maintain faith with staff (one of whom said the Dew Report was ‘like Christmas’) and the public by keeping them informed through periodic audits on progress.

It would be sad if other media organisations also had to be confronted by a #metoo situation before turning the Golden Rule on its head and doing unto themselves what they readily expect of others.

*tldr –‘too long didn’t read’ (an explanation for those born before the turn of the century).

Bouquets

To Pamela Stirling, who steps down from day-to-day editing of the Listener after a memorable 17 years at the helm. And to her successor, Karyn Scherer. Karyn, daughter of former New Zealand Herald editor Peter Scherer, is a former deputy editor of the magazine. She was also founding editor of NZME’s The Business, investigations editor and senior reporter at National Business Review, and editor of the Daily Post in Rotorua.

To TVNZ One for its Olympic coverage. If you didn’t have access or the time to surf Sky’s 12 channels of coverage, this was the go-to place. It had all the coverage we needed to cheer on our team: well-placed reporters in Tokyo, superb camerawork, and engaging anchors in Toni Street and Scottie Stephenson. An extra flower in the bouquet for studio stalwart Sarah Cowley Ross, Olympic high jumper turned broadcaster. Her voice may not be the usual broadcast quality, but she more than made up for that with knowledge and personality.

Brickbat

To the New Zealand Herald for assuming that all its readers were up with social media acronyms. The “GOAT in the boat” heading on last week’s story of Lisa Carrington’s third gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics was jarring to those who were unaware it means Greatest of All Times to those who type with their thumbs.

4 thoughts on “MediaWorks review a wakeup call for whole industry

  1. Good points Gavin but regarding your GOAT headline brickbat, I have a quite separate complaint. “GOAT” would be said G-O-A-T, in the same way the CTU is C-T-U. If it’s said “goat” then it is not an abbreviation but an acronym and should be spelt “Goat”. A bit like “Anzus” or even “radar” or “scuba”.

  2. Yes when people talk about the greatest of all time they talk about “goats” so it should follow the long established rules for acronyms .There is a reason the WHO is the WHO and Unesco is Unesco!

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