‘A complete disgrace’: Seven rocked by top executive’s bombshell email

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One of the most senior figures in Australian media has defended sending a graphic email to a reporter at a rival organisation, in order to defend a colleague and “friend” from a looming negative story.

On October 5 in 2022, Bruce McWilliam, commercial director at Seven, fired off an angry message to Zoe Samios, then the senior media writer at The Sydney Morning Herald, about an investigation she was conducting into Michael Pell.

Mr Pell is the former long-time executive producer of Seven’s top-rating breakfast program Sunrise and a major force in the television industry.

Samios was investigating claims Seven had quietly engaged a law firm to probe allegations of fraud connected to the program and some of its employees.

When Mr Pell’s name was raised, an incensed Mr McWilliam sought to defend him.

“This is what your unfounded reports have caused Michael to do,” he wrote in the sensational October 5 email.

Attached was an image of a bloodied Mr Pell in a hospital gown, with a large cut visible on his forehead.

Mr McWilliam continued: “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.”

Mr Pell had abruptly left his role as Sunrise EP several months earlier, in a move that shocked industry watchers, and was appointed to a plum position with Seven in the United States.

Speaking to news.com.au, Mr McWilliam defended his actions and refuted several insinuations he believes were made by two newspapers today.

“I make no excuse for having acted to protect a colleague, against whom false allegations were being made,” Mr McWilliam said.

“Michael Pell has been a friend of mine for many years, and so the allegation in [today’s reporting] that the image was used without his consent is ridiculous.”

Details of the sensational email were published today on the front pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, accompanied by a double-page spread inside both newspapers.

The outlets are owned by Seven’s main rival, Nine. Among the claims made are allegations Mr McWilliam distributed the image without Mr Pell’s knowledge and that it had actually been taken several weeks earlier and was not the result of self-harm, but an accident.

“The image was supplied to me by Michael’s husband, Daniel Burgess-Wise,” Mr McWilliam revealed.

“[Nine newspapers] alleged it was… old but that wasn’t made clear to me and I don’t even know whether what they say is true.

“He [Mr Burgess-Wise] asked me if could I help Michael and if could I do something to stop the attacks on him, emanating from the questions [from Samios], which became increasingly fierce and misleading.”

News.com.au understands the photo of Mr Pell, sent to Samios, is so graphic that Nine’s newspapers decided against publishing it today.

Mr McWilliam, who recently announced his retirement after more than two decades with Seven and is due to finish up later this month, criticised the “quite bizarre” and “ridiculous” implication that his email was of a bullying nature, which he said was reinforced by the description in today’s reporting of Samios as “a young media reporter”.

Samios is 30 years old and was in a senior position at the time. She has since moved to a new role at The Australian Financial Review, also owned by Nine.

Mr McWilliam said the pair had a good working relationship and he considered her a “good friend”.

In explaining why he sent the email, Mr McWilliam said he felt “a duty” to correct false claims pursued by Samios about Mr Pell, related to the law firm’s rumoured probe of Sunrise.

He claims to have been clear in the original email to Samios that his remarks and views were “off the record”.

He also said Seven chief executive James Warburton received a call from senior Nine investigative reporter Nick McKenzie, who was collaborating on the story with Samios.

“[McKenzie] said that they would respect the mental health issues and not publish it,” Mr McWilliam said.

But he claims the email was ‘leaked’ to a third party – allegedly a journalist at a major rival newspaper – who then passed it back to Nine, so that it could be published without question.

“Now they are claiming that they didn’t have to respect the accepted convention of ‘off the record’ because of the fact that it was [allegedly obtained via another] newspaper. Well, they leaked it, but that’s just by the by.”

Mr McWilliam said he was “pretty amazed” to be the subject of more than two-and-a-half pages of coverage in some of the country’s most prominent newspapers.

“It is obviously a pile on, but never mind, I don’t take it personally,” he said.

He pointed out that a formal statement offered by Seven to Nine Newspapers about Mr Pell was not included in today’s coverage.

“Michael Pell is a very talented guy,” Mr McWilliam told news.com.au.

“He took Seven to number one [at breakfast]. There was a confidential settlement reached with him and he stayed employed by Seven, and followed his desire to go to Los Angeles where he was employed for some years in a roving capacity to see new opportunities.”

Reporting at the weekend that Mr Pell had parted ways with the network were initially strongly disputed by Seven yesterday morning. Later in the day, confirmation was issued by Seven that the reports were true.

“That’s now come to an end, but very amicably,” Mr McWilliam said.

He added that Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes, an icon of the industry, “speaks very highly” of Mr Pell and regards him as “a trailblazer”.

“We provided a statement to that affect to [Nine] earlier in the week, which of course they haven’t used.”

In a statement, Nine 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.”

News.com.au has attempted to reach Samios and Mr Pell several times but did not receive a response.