Sunrise rocked by ‘fraud’ investigations that top TV exec tried to keep secret

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Channel 7 ordered two separate investigations into claims that staff at its top-rating breakfast show Sunrise had engaged in fraud, it can be revealed.

The existence of the probes, which began in March 2022, has remained secret – until now.

It was reported today in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers, owned by the Nine Network, that extraordinary steps were taken to contain news of alleged impropriety involving the misuse of travel perks by Sunrise employees and their friends and family.

That included a furious email sent by Seven’s long-time commercial director Bruce McWilliam, one of the most prominent figures in Australian media, to journalist Zoe Samios, who was chasing the story.

“This is what your unfounded reports have caused Michael to do,” Mr McWilliam wrote in the October 5 message.

The “Michael” referred to is Michael Pell, the executive producer of Sunrise and a lauded figure in television, who was at the helm of the show for more than 11 years, and attached to the email was a graphic image of him, bloodied and in a hospital gown, with a noticeable head wound.

“Why don’t you keep it up so he kills himself. You are a complete disgrace. That law firm you name didn’t conduct any investigation. If you publish untrue allegations … and he tops himself. It’s on you. We are determined to protect him,” the email read.

Speaking exclusively to news.com.au today, Mr McWilliam defended the email and said he was defending a colleague and “friend” against “false allegations”.

Several months before the email, in March 2022, Mr Pell had stepped down as the boss of Sunrise in a move that came as a shock to most media-watchers.

The network then appointed him to the role of Senior Vice President of Entertainment Content in North America, reporting directly to chief executive James Warburton, and he moved to Los Angeles shortly after.

According to today’s reporting by Nine, Samios, then the senior media writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, had contacted Mr McWilliam and put it to him that a law firm named “Seyfarth” was running an investigation.

Mr McWilliam told news.com.au that his denial was technically correct – because another firm was handling the probe.

“(Samios) asked if I was aware of a report conducted by Seyfarth which is a law firm, and I responded (that) here was no such report because I knew the report had been done by someone else,” he said.

“I felt no duty to correct the mistake.”

The newspaper subsequently agreed to kill the story over concerns for Mr Pell’s mental health and wellbeing.

Its re-emergence today almost 18 months later comes as Seven, Nine’s major rival, is embroiled in controversy over its flagship current affairs program Spotlight and its handling of an exclusive interview with Bruce Lehrmann.

As well as a probe conducted by a law firm, reported on today by Nine’s newspapers, news.com.au can reveal that a second investigation was also conducted by a financial and corporate auditor.

They ran concurrently and examined allegations that a small number of Sunrise staff, as well as some of their friends and family, had misused travel benefits provided to the network by Qantas as part of a multimillion-dollar advertising and sponsorship deal.

It was alleged that some staff had taken flights and stayed in hotels, on trips not related to their work duties.

Today, Mr McWilliam told news.com.au that he became incensed when Mr Pell’s name was linked to the investigation, prompting his fiery email to Samios.

“The accusations against Michael were exaggerated,” he told news.com.au.

“I make no excuse for having acted to protect a colleague, against whom false allegations were being made. Michael Pell has been a friend of mine for many years.”

News.com.au understands that findings were made and delivered to Seven – the nature of which have been described by some to news.com.au as “serious”.

However, one source close to the investigation insists the suggestion that the conduct equated to “fraud”, as implied in today’s reporting by Nine’s newspapers, is not supported by the findings.

Despite that, it’s understood that a small number of staff left the network following the findings being delivered to Seven. They signed nondisclosure agreements.

Seven declined to comment.

News.com.au made repeated attempts to contact Mr Pell, who “amicably” left his role at Seven recently, but he did not respond.

However, news.com.au has confirmed that Mr Pell remained an employee of seven, in his highly publicised role in the US, for a significant period of time after the investigations concluded.

News.com.au is not suggesting Mr Pell engaged in any wrongdoing.

On Sunday, The Australian Financial Review revealed Mr Pell and Seven had parted ways, part of what it called “cost cuts”.

It was reported that he had been gone for “some time” but a source told news.com.au that the exit was “pretty recent”.

In a statement, Seven said: “Michael Pell has left the company with our best wishes. He has been a wonderful executive, a trailblazer in breakfast TV, and we appreciate his work over a long period of time.”

Nine was approached for comment this morning. In response, a spokesman said: “We have a broad range of support services for all our people at Nine and they access them at different times as they need or the circumstances require. We would never make any comment about individuals.”

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