When the axe falls

Eddie McGuire has opened up about the way redundancies were handled at Channel Nine.Channel Seven sacks veteran reporterTen risks ratings disaster after cutsGuess who came to lunch?


When Eddie McGuire was forced to axe 100 staff from Channel Nine – barely a few months into his new role as CEO – he decided to give it to them straight.

Unfortunately, his HR department had other plans.

Instead of letting him sit down and talk with each unlucky worker, they made him read a scripted statement to them. He was also advised not to answer their questions.

“It was a disaster . . . the worst thing I did,” McGuire confessed to his Triple M listeners last week. “These HR people come in, they have their set plays – and they never work.”

That was in 2006: an annus horribilis of bad headlines for Nine. Of course, its redundancies were never going to be painless. But as McGuire found out, the advice from HR only compounded that pain.

Now, the embattled Ten Network seems intent on replicating these blunders with a series of ham-fisted sackings from its news department, including the removal of presenter Helen Kapalos.

And it is not alone: most TV and radio networks have swallowed the misconception that redundancies should be swift and brutal. No farewell to loyal audiences. No saying goodbye to colleagues. Just hand in your pass, pack your things and go. Now.

The theory is that a swift sacking equals a “clean break”. The reality is that using a guillotine leaves a lot of blood. Badwill rises. Leaks spring. Rumours swirl.

The most bemusing aspect is that all this could be avoided through common decency. No one likes being sacked but a simple thank you, a farewell gathering and the option to work until the contract ends goes a long way towards reducing animosity.

Yet the idea persists that brutal axings are a hallmark of “decisive” management.

“Apparently in radio, people have to be sacked with some kind of great drama,” Wendy Harmer, a former 2Day FM host, once told me. “You can’t be told in advance you’re going to lose your job. There has to be some sort of vile skulduggery.”

Indeed, many hosts have no idea they’re doing their final show until it’s over. Often, they’re sacked as they come off air and told not to return.

This happened to Mix FM’s George McEncroe in 2009 – on April Fools’ Day, no less. Eventually, her bosses convinced her it was no joke and McEncroe later described the experience as “very David Brent”.

Others have endured rumours and even newspaper reports of their impending demise, including former Triple M hosts Peter Helliar and Myf Warhurst. By the time they were sacked, it was common knowledge in the industry they were making way for Eddie McGuire.

Likewise, Sydney newsreader Bill Woods was assured by Channel Ten management that recent reports of his sacking were wrong. Woods even told Fairfax Media he was looking forward to returning to work after the weekend – only to be sacked the moment he did.

Ten claims its decision had not been made when Fairfax Media reported it, just two days before it happened. It’s hard to believe they weren’t seriously considering it, though – and even harder to understand why they let Woods think he was safe.

If, on the other hand, Ten did decide to sack him just hours before doing so, it suggests such decisions are made on a whim: not a good look for a network in crisis.

Needless to say, Woods isn’t the first newsreader to receive false reassurances.

In 2005, Beverley O’Connor was sacked by Channel Seven. As she wrote in the Herald Sun recently, “Execution day was also a Friday but they decided to do it a few hours before I was due on air. Not only were they dumping me, but I had to go on air and announce my own humiliating departure to Peter Mitchell at the end of the bulletin.”

One executive looked her in the eye and promised she’d be given another job. That promise amounted to nothing.

It’s hard to decide whether this is worse than the unvarnished cruelty of Seven’s executives in sacking Mal Walden almost two decades earlier.

Last year, Walden told me, “We coined them the ‘princes of darkness’ because of their sheer acts of bastardry. I remember one guy standing at the door of the newsroom on a Friday and saying, ‘I’m going back to Sydney now to draw up a list of those I’m going to fire on Monday. Enjoy your weekend.’ “

What did this executive hope to achieve with such needless barbarism? Whatever his goal, it backfired spectacularly when almost all of Seven News’ audience switched off in protest over Walden’s sacking.

The most mystifying part of all this, however, is that such tactics are patently dumb.

People don’t like seeing their colleagues treated badly. Even if they’ve escaped the axe themselves, it diminishes their respect for the company – leaving them happy to leak damaging information to other journalists.

If media companies want to cut costs, perhaps they could start with the overpaid HR executives who peddle the nonsense theories that McGuire learnt are no substitute for simple, decent treatment.

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