Industry veteran Harold Mitchell has decided to step down as chairman of Free TV Australia.
Mitchell’s resignation comes in the wake of ASIC issuing civil penalty proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia against Mitchell and Stephen Healy, both former directors of Tennis Australia.
The regulator’s case relates to a decision made in 2013 by the Tennis Australia board to award the domestic TV broadcast rights for the Australian Open tournament to Seven for a five-year period without a competitive tender process.
Mitchell said in a statement: “I have advised Free TV this morning that I intend to resign from my position as chairman immediately.
“It is with regret that I have been forced to make this decision following the false accusations by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, which I intend to vigorously defend.
“I am proud of my achievements in my five years with Free TV when we achieved a repeal of the media ownership laws, the scrapping of commercial television licence fees and maintenance of the anti-siphoning list.
“I wish Free TV and its members all the best in the future.”
However Free TV chief executive Bridget Fair told B&T that these reports were incorrect, and that Mitchell “made his own decision in the best interests of FreeTV”.
“It is with great regret that Free TV announces that Mr Harold Mitchell has taken the decision to resign as chairman of Free TV. Harold’s contributions to the industry cannot be overstated,” she said.
“Over the past five years, he has overseen some of the most significant developments in the commercial television sector and delivered superb leadership and advice, for which we are sincerely grateful.
“Harold’s expertise, experience and commitment will be very much missed throughout the organisation. He leaves a lasting and important legacy at Free TV, having significantly changed the industry for the better in his time as chairman.
“Speaking personally, I am very sorry to be losing Harold, who has been an outstanding chairman for Free TV. It has been a great privilege to have the opportunity to work with and learn from a business leader of his calibre with such a deep understanding of commercial television and the wider industry landscape.
“He has been generous with his knowledge, his energy and his time in furthering the interests of Free TV broadcasters and leaves us very well placed for the future.”
One of Australia’s most successful and well-regarded media executives, Mitchell was the founder of Mitchell & Partners and executive chairman of Aegis Media Asia Pacific.
He also founded the Harold Mitchell Foundation and is a major contributor to Australian public life.
Some of the key issues in which Mitchell has played a key role during his tenure as chairman of Free TV include the historic repeal of the media ownership laws, the removal of commercial television licence fees, the transition to digital-only television, defeating the proposal to increase SBS advertising time limits, and maintaining the anti-siphoning list.
“Harold will be sorely missed by Free TV and the commercial television industry,” Fair said.
“We thank him for his outstanding service to the industry and we wish him well.”
ASIC has put forward a string of accusations against Mitchell and Healy, including that the pair withheld information from the Tennis Australia board when it made its decision to award the domestic broadcast rights.
Mitchell is also alleged to have passed on confidential information to Seven about the interest of its competitors in acquiring the rights, as well as downplaying the interests of other parties and encouraging the Tennis Australia board to go with Seven instead of putting the rights out to competitive tender.
In a statement to B&T, a Seven West Media spokesperson said the company was “disappointed” in ASIC’s decision to take court action against Mitchell and Healy.