David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

The Big Read: Hilary Barry resignation last straw for MediaWorks executives

Mark Weldon’s term at MediaWorks began with promise but ended with colleagues in open revolt.

Hilary Barry's resignation from TV3 appears to have been the tipping point which led to a revolt by MediaWorks executives against company boss Mark Weldon.

The Herald has learned that key executives at the head of the company sought out meetings with board members and told them Mr Weldon had lost their support.

The decision by executives to seek out personal meetings with the board members came after the discovery Hilary Barry would be the latest in a long list of staff to leave the broadcaster.

Chairman Rod McGeoch - who said Monday Mr Weldon had the "full support" of the board - was said to be targeted by the executives as a key person in the movement against the chief executive.

Other directors were also spoken to.

The revolt by senior management was cited by an informed source as a key reason for Mr Weldon's resignation, which also saw him saying the "the personal cost is now too high to continue in this role".

The announcement by Mr Weldon today saw a gathering of former MediaWorks staff in a central Auckland bar. There was champagne - but the glasses were raised to the company rather than Mr Weldon's departure. The group of former staff included some of the most senior executives to have left during his 21 months at the helm.

TV3 presenter Hilary Barry with her co-host Mike McRoberts as she arrives at TV3 with a car boot full of celebration drinks. Photo / Dean Purcell
TV3 presenter Hilary Barry with her co-host Mike McRoberts as she arrives at TV3 with a car boot full of celebration drinks. Photo / Dean Purcell

The end of the reign of Mr Weldon - former Olympic swimmer and NZX chief executive - has seen a gradual disenfranchisement from staff across the business and up the seniority chain, sources have told the Herald.

His arrival was greeted with optimism in many quarters with a track record of success and a buoyant confidence that carried people with him.

There was also a recognition that the business of digital, radio and television broadcast needed to be restructured if it was going to survive in a world in which technology was destroying traditional business models.

As the company entered 2015, though, there was concerns about the chief executive whose most compelling argument to senior staff was, at times, to tell them: "I'm the smartest person in the room."

Cartoon by Rod Emmerson
Cartoon by Rod Emmerson

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Senior figures in the company have told the Herald that Mr Weldon's connection with the company was with the business he wanted it to be - rather than the close, collegial place it was.

In media circles, TV3 was always known as a tight environment. When the 7pm current affairs show Campbell Live was placed under review, the repercussions were felt across the business. The eventual departure of presenter John Campbell (regarded by most as the nicest man in broadcasting) was taken as a personal loss by many who worked with him.

Campbell was not the only one - there were many others who left over the next year. Newsreader Carolyn Robinson left, as did sports presenter Hamish McKay, current affairs editor Terence Taylor and his 3D team which included Melanie Reid and Paula Penfold, and a host of others.

There were people in the executive floor and those behind the scenes, including 6pm news producer John Hale who traveled with Hilary Barry to South Africa to cover Nelson Mandela's funeral. Also gone was long-time company lawyer Clare Bradley, head of news Mark Jennings, corporate communications boss Rachel Lorimer, chief executive of television Paul Maher and research and analytics director Inna Goikhman among many others.

In a place where everybody knew each other, and worked hard to have fun while making quality broadcasting, the disappearance of familiar faces was said to have sapped the spirit which made MediaWorks special. The frosted-glass meeting room where those difficult discussions took place became known as "the crying room".

Among that, a focus on cost-cutting by Mr Weldon saw mutterings among staff over events which did not seem to match the "fiscal responsibility" mantra.

There was the sales of wine from his Terra Sancta winery into the company. The Weekend Herald revealed last year hundreds of bottles of wine had been sold to MediaWorks by the company. It meant staff were constantly confronted by sales from Mr Weldon's personal business - the Herald was told it was "at cost" - when attending a function, or in the form of gifts from the business.

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Mark Weldon. Photo / Natalie Slade
Mark Weldon. Photo / Natalie Slade

The Herald has since learned Mr Weldon cleared the sale of his company's wine into MediaWorks with the board before he started.

There was also talk of Mr Weldon charging an administration fee when claiming on expenses. The Herald has recently obtained a Mediaworks claim form in which a $50 processing fee has been added to an expenses claim for four months of mobile phone calls.

To MediaWorks staff who knew of it, the claim seemed at odds with savings such as a new photocopier policy which forced printing to be done on both sides of a page - and disabled the colour option. On the photocopier decision, Mr Weldon said: "These things have some symbolic aspect - when people start focusing on things everyone notices, you are sending a signal that people expect fiscal responsibility in all things.

In contrast, the claim form from the early days of Mr Weldon's reign seeks reimbursment for $681 of phone calls and adds an "admin fee" of $50.

The expense form carries Mr Weldon's name but also lists his wine company Terra Sancta as the "supplier", suggesting the new chief executive had yet to switch payment of his phone bill to his new employer.

Again, the board was comfortable when quizzed by the Herald. Mr McGeoch, the board chairman, said there was no issue with the claim.

"In line with our compliance policy, all the CEO's expenses are signed off by me personally and I am comfortable that these expense claims comply with these policies."

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The growing disquiet - the departures, the cost-cutting - led to opposition. There was difficulty cutting through to Mr Weldon, with the creation of the Scout gossip website cited as one example where senior staff tried to have him listen. They were opposed and yet he went ahead with significant investment into a website which has failed to find traction among audiences.

In time, opposition came to be recognised as unwelcome. The Herald has spoken to those who considered they were frozen out of Mr Weldon's circle after disagreeing with him over decisions.

The sum of it all was a company heading in a different direction from its chief executive. Mr McGeoch on Monday, in a statement pledging "full support" to Mr Weldon, said major restructuring was a factor at every mainstream media company in the world.

"MediaWorks is no different. We have to change and we are changing. We have a clear strategy for this, led by our CEO."

Video

Mr Weldon emailed staff that night to tell them the business was doing well. He wrote that the company's 60 per cent of the radio audience was being matched by an increase in revenue - up from 51 per cent to 57 per cent.

The new "Newshub" brand was going well and was "the right thing to do" and Paul Henry's show - co-hosted by Hilary Barry - had doubled its audience. News and current affairs, though, had lost $15m while entertainment made $30m profit.

"Overall, the business is in the best shape it has ever been in recent times," he wrote.

Until the senior executives approached board members, though, it appears those controlling the destiny of MediaWorks had little idea of how far the company had drifted from the people working there who had to realise their vision.

As his senior staff revolted this week, Mr Weldon was preparing to move his desk into the newsroom. His assumption he would be accepted working from a newsroom so traumatically restructured was cited as an example of his distance from the mood of those working for the company.

And there was another factor. In his email to staff, he wrote that "Hilary (Barry) has told both myself and management directly that there have been no discussions with TVNZ, or in fact any negotiations at all to date".

It was an assurance he repeated at the launch of MediaWork's new Bravo channel, at which he gave an unusually lacklustre speech. He told Fairfax media that he had a personal assurance from Hilary Barry she was not going to another media outlet.
It is understood Barry has no recollection of giving such an assurance - a detail she communicated as high in MediaWorks she was able that night.

In a discussion with the Herald at the Bravo event, Mr Weldon gave no indication he was considering leaving. To the contrary, he was refusing any interview which might touch on his personal life. "You're hunting me," he said.

When it came to the possibility of a discussion around the changing face of media, he left open the possibility for an interview in the near future.

And yet, by this morning, Mr Weldon was gone.

- NZ Herald

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