Despite his absence, Seven’s McWilliam looms large in Tennis case


Though McWilliam is not expected to be called as a witness in the case, his figure looms large over proceedings.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has launched civil penalty court action against Mitchell and Healy alleging they breached their duties during the rights negotiations by favouring Seven – the incumbent holder of the rights to broadcast the Australian Open.

ASIC alleges emails between McWilliam and other Seven executives and the forwarding of information by Mitchell proves their case that Mitchell was helping Seven in its bid by passing information onto Seven about rival bidders. Mitchell was allegedly doing this while also downplaying offers from Network Ten and US group IMG being championed by Tennis Australia’s then chief executive Steve Wood and chief commercial officer Steve Ayles.

Both Mitchell and Healy are defending the allegations.

“Have just returned from Harold’s office. They (Tennis Australia) started off wanting a big jump… this is what we think we can get them on at,” McWilliam wrote to Seven chairman Kerry Stokes during the rights negotiations in 2012.

McWilliam noted in the email that Tennis Australia had other offers but “Harold has poo-pooed those”.

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The emails also show a growing toxicity in the relationship between Seven and the top executives at Tennis Australia over Seven’s perceived entitlement to the rights to the tournament it had televised for 40 years and Tennis Australia’s desire to increase the revenue from any deal.

One particular exchange shows the heat in the relationship, at least from the Seven side.

“Steve [Wood] this is sent in particularly bad faith… You have not told the truth to us in negotiations. We agreed and shook hands, you sat there and agreed things with us and Harold,” McWilliam said in an email in late 2012 when Seven learned its contract would not be automatically extended by Tennis Australia for two years until 2015.

That tension increased when Tennis Australia sent a marked-up report on Seven’s offer that sought to point out the issues with Seven’s bid. That document was written by Tennis Australia’s then in-house counsel Roger Perrins and referred to internally at Seven as “Perrin’s sauce”, a joking reference to the famous brand of Worcestershire sauce Lea & Perrins.

Steve [Wood] this is sent in particularly bad faith… You have not told the truth to us in negotiations.

Bruce McWilliam in an email to Steve Wood in late 2012.

“That piece of crap sent to me was insulting and didn’t make sense… Then to get that piece of swiss cheese was v upsetting… As you can see, I’ve calmed down from last week,” McWilliam said, tongue firmly in cheek.

ASIC’s case rests on the idea that Mitchell and Healy pulled out all stops to downplay or not present alternative offers to other members of the board of Tennis Australia.

But as Justice Jonathan Beach said this week, was it simply a case of “good cop, bad cop”?

Was Mitchell the good cop telling Seven everything would be alright while he knew the CEO was driving a very hard bargain?

From this early in the case, and with a cavalcade of witnesses yet to give evidence including former Ten boss Hamish McLennan and former Nine boss David Gyngell, it’s a bit hard to tell.

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