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Ten loses Seven programmer legal bid

Australia’s Network Ten has been dealt a blow after a judge rejected the broadcaster’s bid to stop a veteran programming exec taking a key role at rival Seven Network.

Ten had offered John Stephens, who had been with Seven, a two-year contract that would block him from working for either broadcaster, but this was dismissed by New South Wales Supreme Court Justice James Stephenson.

The row had erupted after Stephens turned his back on a contract signed to join Ten’s programming team as director of scheduling and acquisitions, claiming he had been under the influence of painkilling medication at the time of signing, in favour of remaining at Seven in a new consultancy role.

Justice Stephenson this week agreed Ten’s initial contract remained valid “on foot”, and that Seven executives had actively sought to change Stephens’ mind about exiting the broadcaster after contracts were signed, but dismissed Ten’s claims for financial recompense.

The ruling allows Ten to pick up the case again should it want to. Justice Stephenson has ordered Ten and Seven to decide on legal costs between them, though will step in to mediate if necessary.

He also ruled the contract offer Seven made to persuade Stephens to stay with the broadcaster was “extraordinarily generous”, and worth “four times” the amount he was previously contracted to at Seven.

“We are pleased that this annoying attempt at distraction by Ten is concluded,” a Seven spokesman was quoted in Australia press as saying. “We are pleased that Mr Stephens is able to continue to work for Seven and not take up the generous offer from Ten to be paid for two years to do nothing. This offer undoubtedly would have set a new precedent for our industry.”

However, Network Ten CEO Hamish McLennan claimed the legal verdict proved his firm had been successful. “The ruling that Mr Stephens’ contract with Ten remains on foot vindicates our position. The court has found that our contract is valid and binding. We stated from the outset that our aim was to get to the truth of what happened after Mr Stephens signed a contract with our company.”

“The past few weeks have been a chapter in my life I could have certainly lived without and perhaps both Ten and Seven feel the same way,” Stephen said in a statement issued by Seven. “It is disappointing the situation had to progress all the way to the Supreme Court, but I guess that is part of the competitive nature of our business. Regardless I am relieved the legal stoush is now done and dusted and I can now concentrate more fully on my consultancy role with Seven. I have been a part of a great team and its success over the past decade and I am looking forward to continuing to be a part of this team.”