3 Aug 2021

MediaWorks review exposes alleged sexual assault, 'boys club culture'

From Mediawatch, 4:07 pm on 3 August 2021

MediaWorks chief executive Cam Wallace has apologised to his staff after a culture review investigating allegations of sexual assault, racial harassment, discrimination, bullying, and the misuse of drugs and alcohol at the company.

Mediaworks logo

Mediaworks logo Photo: supplied

The review was ordered by Wallace, who started as chief executive early this year, after accusations of workplace bullying and harassment surfaced on social media, and in reporting by Stuff’s Alison Mau in March.

It was carried out by Maria Dew QC over 20 weeks, and drew on interviews with 126 current and former staff, along with a survey filled out by 480 workers.

In her findings (PDF) Dew said six participants raised allegations of sexual assault - four from the three year period covered by the review, and two from outside that time period.

None of the women who raised these allegations felt MediaWorks had dealt adequately with their complaints.

A majority of participants accused the company of having a "boys club" culture, where people in positions of power tolerated on-going sexist and racist behaviour, minimised sexual harassment, failed to promote greater gender diversity, and misused alcohol and drugs.

Review participants said that culture had stopped women, and people from ethnic minorities, rising into positions of leadership.

"No female is given a leg up. There is an attitude of ‘you are one of the sons or you’re not’. There is the inner circle and females don’t get let into that circle." one of staff member told the review.

Staff members also reported hearing sexist comments including:

  • “Only hire hot,” referring to female applicants for roles.
  • “Boys, this is why you don’t hire mums." 
  • Manager comments that they cannot have a radio show with two female announcers and only one male because “the show will be too bitchy” or “Don’t hire a female as she’ll get knocked up in five minutes". 

Respondents also reported repeatedly hearing derogatory terms like "slut" or "hoe" used in the office.

Twenty eight respondents reported hearing racially discriminatory language from company leaders.

One senior employee was reported as saying “no one buys [radio station] as brown people don’t have money”, referring to commercial advertising sales.

Another requested that a staff member "tone down the Māori".

The survey results found 45% of women and 34% of men had witnessed some form of bullying, with most of those reports focused on senior managers or senior employees in the company's radio division. Respondents said the behaviour had gone unchecked, and was often excused with phrases like “that's just how they are” or “that's just radio”, the review said.

"I would like to unreservedly apologise on behalf of MediaWorks to current and former staff for MediaWorks’ failures over the past years to inadequately respond to complaints of misconduct, and for the harm that this has caused," Wallace said in a statement.

2019 incident

One late-2019 incident, which was first reported on the social media account Beneath The Glass Ceiling NZ, is covered in detail in the report. 

It centres on a 19-year-old woman, who was not a MediaWorks employee, who attended a promotional event along with others aged between 18 and 25 after winning a radio listeners competition.

The young woman said she became heavily intoxicated after drinking alcohol provided by MediaWorks over several hours, and remembers little of the event past 6pm.

Several MediaWorks staff members saw a senior male employee "engaging" with the woman during the event, the report said. He was more than 20 years older than her, and the staff members were uncomfortable with the "overly familiar physical contact between them", but did not intervene.

The report said "an incident of sexual conduct" occurred between the woman and the senior staff member later that evening.

The woman couldn't remember much of what happened when she woke up. She became distressed and sought medical attention and police advice, while also reaching out to the staff member to confirm what took place.

Since then, the woman has suffered serious ongoing psychological harm, for which she's needed specialist counselling.

On the Tuesday after the incident, the woman’s father reported a sexual harm complaint to Michael Anderson, who was then MediaWorks chief executive. The employee was suspended from work while an internal investigation was carried out. 

There was no written report produced as a result of that investigation. It concluded with a discussion between key senior executives, who agreed the employee's conduct didn't warrant his dismissal. 

They never informed the young woman of the outcome of her complaint, and she remains deeply upset with the process, the report said.

The senior staff member involved told Dew he regretted the incident, but denied any criminal conduct. 

Action recommended

Dew set out 32 recommendations for action over the review's findings. A statement from MediaWorks said it was committed to moving forward on all those recommendations. 

The report said the review has "referred matters for independent employment investigations where participants came forward with allegations of serious misconduct by current staff." 

There have been four separate matters referred for investigation which have commenced or are completed - alleging:

  • Use of illegal drugs at a MediaWorks function
  • Bullying and pressure to perform unpaid work
  • Harassment by a work colleague
  • Inappropriate workplace relationship between a senior male and a junior female team member

In an interview with Mediawatch in April, Wallace said the review represented a commitment to change.

"We're actually leaning into this process of culture. We're spending a lot of money on the review. We're serious about it. We're not shying away from it."

The review is one of a series of HR issues Wallace has faced in his stint as chief executive.

He fired John Banks from his role as a fill-in announcer on Magic Talk almost immediately after taking over the job in January, after the former Auckland mayor described Māori as a “stone age people” in an on-air exchange with a racist caller.

Complainants were told that MediaWorks' standards committee found the broadcast breached standards of good taste and decency, and represented an “organisational and editorial failure."

“The standards committee offers its sincere apology to Māori, to complainants and to the wider public for this broadcast and the harm that it caused,” MediaWorks said at the time. 

Magic Talk’s afternoon host Sean Plunket, who’d also faced accusations of racism, resigned soon after.

MediaWorks said it held meetings with staff at Magic Talk to discuss the cause of the standards breach and how to avoid similar situations in future.

It would be setting up sessions to educate staff on "cultural understanding" and broadcasting standards "imminently". 

A high-profile radio host also went off-air, and vanished from the company's website, after being accused of harassment early in the review process. 

Wallace defended MediaWorks culture after his decision to fire Banks, and he stood by that in April.

"I do think the culture is positive and creative. Like any organisation, there'll be pockets of behaviour which are not consistent with where we want to be - we want to be a business that's attuned to modern New Zealand."

The review was meant to be released on Monday, but was delayed.

Stuff reported staff were frustrated with the delay. A MediaWorks spokeswoman said it was necessary to allow board members, some of whom were in different time zones, to digest the report.