19 Feb 2023

Employee alleges broadcaster Sean Plunket yelled at her, punched desk

6:43 am on 19 February 2023

By Ethan Griffiths, Open Justice reporter of NZ Herald

Sean Plunket. Photo:

An editor at new media start-up The Platform says she was yelled and sworn at by founder Sean Plunket, before he "punched a desk" standing just a metre in front of her.

But while Plunket largely accepts what he describes as "appalling" behaviour, he rejects a personal grievance claim lodged by digital engagement editor Ani O'Brien, who says she feels the workplace is too unsafe to return to and lacks sound dispute resolution processes.

Both Plunket and O'Brien gave evidence before the Employment Relations Authority in Wellington on Thursday and Friday.

The full picture of the claim isn't yet clear, with the two-day hearing listening to testimony only. Submissions from both sides are to be made at a later hearing.

The Platform began broadcasting last year, with Martin Devlin, Michael Laws and Plunket himself as regular hosts. The company also creates content for its website and social media platforms - the part of the business O'Brien was employed within.

According to her evidence, O'Brien met with Plunket in early 2021, at which point she was working as a press secretary in the office of then-Opposition leader Judith Collins. After a change in the party's leadership later that year, O'Brien met again with Plunket in Queenstown to talk about his new project.

She was offered a job and received a contract, but gave evidence she wasn't provided with a job description.

O'Brien further understood she was employed as a manager with responsibility over staff.

During her testimony, she spoke of an altercation with Plunket on May 3, where O'Brien says he was telling another staff member to "stop playing around on social media".

O'Brien then called out to Plunket to correct him; "basically expressing that we needed social media content", she told the Authority.

She said the broadcaster then "stormed over" to her desk "shouting, swearing and pointing his finger at me". She says he told her to "pack your s**t up and go".

"He demanded I go into a small side office. I told him I was frightened and didn't want to go in a small space with him."

A meeting was later held at a café between Plunket and O'Brien. She says at this meeting he apologised for his behaviour, but Plunket denied this.

Speak Up for Women spokesperson, Ani O'Brien.

Ani O'Brien. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

O'Brien alleged a further incident on June 3, where she was emailed by Chloe Wright, a director of the company. O'Brien replied, copying in Plunket, who she says became upset at having not been contacted in the first instance.

Plunket gave evidence that he was angry an employee had been in contact with another director, which was his responsibility.

Another incident occurred on June 7, during which O'Brien says Plunket "punched a desk".

"If Mr Plunket was particularly stressed or heard something he didn't like, he had a tendency to raise his voice or get angry at times," she said.

After the June 7 incident, O'Brien went home and didn't return to work. Another meeting was held the next day, including with company director Wayne Wright, who flew down specifically to meet with the pair. It was here Plunket says he "apologised unreservedly".

The Wright family, best known for their Best Start early childhood empire, fund the business and own 75 per cent of its shares.

People close to O'Brien, whose identities are suppressed, gave evidence that during her time with the business, her mental health deteriorated and she began to suffer stress-related health issues.

The Platform's lawyer, Michael O'Brien, said that Ani had initially applied for name suppression. Michael said The Platform was happy to support the application, as long as suppression was granted to both parties. At that point, Ani withdrew her application, he said.

Giving evidence, Plunket denied he had an aggressive demeanour in the office, but broadly accepted O'Brien's accounts of what he said were inappropriate responses in times of high stress. The main point of disagreement was Plunket said he slapped the desk on June 7 as opposed to punching it.

"I accept I behaved appallingly," he said.

He said he had never before been in a role where he managed multiple staff, and had since received "a lot of guidance" from Wright about how to direct a business and manage his team. But he said his frustration stemmed from O'Brien's own behaviour.

The June 7 outburst occurred as a result of O'Brien interfering in Plunket's plans to go to a funeral and talking to her when he had asked her not to, he said.

But he denied the workplace was unsafe or that O'Brien was treated unfairly. He said she undermined him in the office, and believed she was in a managerial position when she wasn't.

John Pagani, a former political adviser who did contract work for The Platform gave evidence that there was a management style of control.

"There was a need for a much more affiliative style of management," he said. Plunket denied this.

O'Brien 'white-anted and undermined' Judith Collins - witness

Judith Collins at the Bring Back Business Presser

Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The most heated part of the hearing came as John Mitchell, former chief press secretary to then-National Party leader Judith Collins, gave evidence about his experience working with O'Brien in her previous job at Parliament.

Mitchell said he initially found O'Brien diligent but alleged he and others were later "subtly undermined" by her. He said she was responsible for "white-anting" and labelled her behaviour "sneaky and devious".

Mitchell further claimed that Collins and then-chief of staff Megan Wallace were aware of "trust issues" with O'Brien.

"I got an extremely clear indication that they were aware of trust issues with Ani, that I was not privy to, and that they had serious concerns."

That "clear indication", Mitchell said, was Collins and Wallace looking at each other and nodding when Ani came up in conversation.

"Is that seriously your evidence?" authority member Rowan Anderson replied. Mitchell confirmed it was, denying he held a grudge against O'Brien.

The evidence was challenged by O'Brien's lawyer Barabara Buckett, who said the comments could be considered defamatory.

"You come to this authority, literally, to slur Ani's reputation, on what you just told the member was an impression left with you from a nod. Is that exactly where we get to?"

"I understand it's subjective," he replied.

Under cross-examination by Buckett, Mitchell also revealed that Plunket rang him directly, asking him if he would be prepared to speak with his lawyer. He said Plunket was told to contact him by Judith Collins.

Giving evidence himself, Plunket was asked by Buckett if he had a conversation with Collins. He said he did, but would not be drawn on what was said due to "journalistic privilege".

After a five-minute adjournment where Plunket sought further legal advice, he returned and answered the question.

"I simply uttered her name, and Ms Collins' response was, 'Oh god, is she at it again? She just can't help herself'."

"I told her I don't want to get into it, and she said, 'Woe betide any man who manages her'. She said I should talk to two people, one of which was John Mitchell."

Authority member Rowan Anderson said a date for the parties' submissions will be set down for the near future, at which point he will go away and issue a reserved determination.

* This story originally appeared in the NZ Herald