News, Culture & Society

Ten network at war in wake of Wilkinson saga, say staff

When Lisa Wilkinson became Ten’s highest-paid on air talent, staff were prepared to forgive her huge salary, lavish wardrobe allowance, personal hair and make-up teams. Not to mention the luxury accommodation and business-class flights between Sydney and Melbourne for her role on The Project. 

After all, they were all assured the big signing of the one-time Today host was a sign Ten would return to the world of ‘serious’ news – and help turn around the fortunes of the network’s reality TV franchises. 

However the following five years have delivered a very different reality.

The Project’s rating are now at all-time lows, with just a dismal 185,000 tuning in to the 6.30pm time slot across the five-city metro market in March, the show’s lowest ratings since its prime time debut in 2017.

Studio 10 routinely finishes last in its time slot while marquee shows MasterChef and The Bachelor are in terminal decline.

(MasterChef’s premiere figures were so low back in April, former MKR judge Colin Fassnidge tweeted: ‘The last time I seen bad ratings like this on a show… I was on it.’)

Staffing numbers, meanwhile, continue to decline due to an almost continuous round of redundancies. 

It was in this environment that Lisa Wilkinson made her now-infamous Logies acceptance speech.

Al smiles: Lisa Wilkinson was hailed as a potential saviour for Ten back in 2017

Lisa Wilkinson attends the 62nd TV Week Logie Awards at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre on June 19

Lisa Wilkinson attends the 62nd TV Week Logie Awards at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre on June 19

In the space of a few seconds on Sunday night Wilkinson set in motion an ACT Supreme Court delay on the upcoming Brittany Higgins rape trial. 

Chief justice Lucy McCallum ruled ‘regrettably and with gritted teeth’ to vacate the trial, which was set to begin on Monday, due to comments by Wilkinson, as well as radio broadcasters Amanda Keller and Brendan Jones. 

Lawyers defending Higgins’ accused rapist Bruce Lehrmann successfully argued for the trial to be delayed because of the comments. 

Mr Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty.  

Network Ten's Pyrmont headquarters. Network in 'one of the most challenging phases in its long history'.

Network Ten’s Pyrmont headquarters. Network in ‘one of the most challenging phases in its long history’.

'It is a fair assessment to say (Wilkinson's) arrival could be singled out as the start of some of the problems,' says Ten staffer

‘It is a fair assessment to say (Wilkinson’s) arrival could be singled out as the start of some of the problems,’ says Ten staffer

But for some staff at Ten it was just the latest in a series of off-screen developments that have rankled since Wilkinson’s widely-publicised arrival in 2017 after her departure from Nine.   

Wilkinson reported salary of $1.5million a year and accompanying perks became an issue with staff – many of whom would soon be offered redundancies.

There was her wardrobe budget, an expensive hair-and-make team, regular business class flights to and from Wilkinson’s home in Sydney to Melbourne where The Project is taped and luxury accommodation.

While such perks are standard for big-name talent on TV, they hit a nerve in the Ten hallways when Wilkinson’s presence failed to translate into ratings.

In fact, viewing numbers went into such a free-fall towards the end of 2021 that Wilkinson was ordered off the air by Ten management in the hope her absence would ‘re-invigorate’ viewers.

Staff in the dark at Ten in the wake of Wilkinson's now-infamous Logies speech

Staff in the dark at Ten in the wake of Wilkinson’s now-infamous Logies speech

Wilkinson (with Waleed Aly) is rumoured to earn around $1.7million per year

Wilkinson (with Waleed Aly) is rumoured to earn around $1.7million per year

It was around that time that her memoir ‘It Wasn’t Meant to Be Like This’ also hit headlines as a number of key facts in the tome were disputed – among them the so-called pay disparity with former Today co-host Karl Stefanovic.

Wilkinson maintained in the book that Karl earned double her salary to do the same job, and that when she asked for a pay rise, she was unceremoniously sacked.

However it was later claimed Lisa actually earned more than Karl for years when they first joined forces on the breakfast program in 2007.

For some staff working quietly behind the scenes at Ten at the time, whose salaries paled in comparison to Wilkinson’s near-$2million per year package, it was hard to swallow.

‘It wasn’t exactly what a lot of people felt was something worth bringing up given the kind of money (Lisa) was earning at Ten,’ says one Ten employee.

However, that all changed after the fall out from Sunday night’s Logies speech.

In a new twist to the Brittany Higgins rape trial, Peter FitzSimons (R) has been subpeaonad by the defence

In a new twist to the Brittany Higgins rape trial, Peter FitzSimons (R) has been subpeaonad by the defence

A number of high-profile  public faces of the network, including legendary newscaster Sandra Sully and former veteran weatherman Tim Bailey, took the bold step of publicly criticising Wilkinson.

Bailey let rip in a brutal tweet last night, calling her a ‘big head’, while Sully ‘liked’ a tweet calling for Wilkinson to ‘back away’.

According to a Pyrmont insider, eyebrows were also raised internally this week when Wilkinson’s husband Peter FitzSimons was mentioned in the Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday.

Lawyers for Higgins’ rapist accused Bruce Lehrmann noted that FitzSimons’ involvement in helping secure Higgins a book deal could become a factor in the trial.  

Higgins secured a lucrative deal with Penguin Random House back in April – a deal FitzSimons allegedly helped broker.

FitzSimons has dozens of books under a number of publishing houses and has released several though Penguin Random House including The Great Aussie Bloke Slim Down (2016) and the 2013 bestseller Eureka.

Lawyers for Lehrmann signalled to Justice McCallum that this factor may be explored as part of Higgins’ sexual assault trial and that FitzSimons had been subpoenaed.

Brittany Higgins (L) inked a big book payday in April with the help of Wilkinson' husband Peter FitzSimons

Brittany Higgins (L) inked a big book payday in April with the help of Wilkinson’ husband Peter FitzSimons

Meanwhile embattled staff at Network Ten have been dealt another blow with long-serving news boss Anthony Murdoch sensationally quitting his post.

Murdoch, who joined Ten a decade ago, announced via email late Tuesday he has stepped down as news director.

It’s understood he was on annual leave at the time of his resignation.

Ten news boss Anthony Murdoch (L) has vacated the network amid ongoing off-screen chaos

Ten news boss Anthony Murdoch (L) has vacated the network amid ongoing off-screen chaos 

Murdoch’s shock departure is not believed to be related to Wilkinson’s Supreme Court furore.

However his departure comes at a time when morale at Ten’s Sydney and Melbourne studios is ‘shockingly low’, according to multiple insiders.

Prior to the Wilkinson firestorm, Ten was already embroiled in a very public legal saga.

Murdoch, a popular boss affectionately known as ‘Bug’ amongst his team, was personally named in the bullying claim filed in the Federal court by Ten reporter Tegan George in February.

Ten’s political wunderkind Peter van Onselen at the centre of  high profile bullying case 

Tegan George took aim at both he and Ten's political editor Peter Van Onselen accusing the latter of undermining and humiliating her

Tegan George took aim at both he and Ten’s political editor Peter Van Onselen accusing the latter of undermining and humiliating her

George took aim at both Murdoch and political editor, Peter Van Onselen, accusing the latter of undermining and humiliating her, including by backgrounding other journalists against her, according to the statement of claim filed against the network in the federal court.

Part of her statement of claim also alleges she was required to work ‘in a workplace that was hostile to women’, in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act.

And just last week George expanded her claim against the network for failing to rein in van Onselen in the wake of her appearance in court back in February.

Her lawyer Josh Bornstein, principal at Maurice Blackburn, said George was seeking additional aggravated damages because of this.

‘Network Ten’s management has been unwilling to rein in Mr van Onselen,’ Bornstein alleged. ‘He continued to publicly vilify Ms George after she went to court, causing her immense distress.’

It’s understood the expansion of the claim stems from Ten allegedly failing to stop van Onselen from ‘tormenting’ her in social media posts. 

Murdoch has snow sensationally fallen on his sword in the wake of the expanded claim and the George bullying case continues to divide newsrooms both in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra where van Onselen presides as political editor. 

According to a staffer, Ten management have not given any indicator as to who Murdoch’s replacement will be.

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