Peter van Onselen, the political editor of Network Ten, generalized and humiliated the network’s federal political reporter, Tegan George, including by backgrounding others against her, according to a statement of claim filed against the network in the federal court.
George says she has been unable to work since June last year and claims she suffered “hurt, humiliation and distress” and the loss of opportunity to advance her career at the network, in part due to her treatment by Van Onselen.
She claims the network did nothing about her treatment, and that she was threatened with disciplinary action when she resisted making a formal statement about an alleged sexist remark that she had overheard.
After George complained to news bosses about the lack of a “clear chain of command” and “conflicting instructions” under Van Onselen’s management of the Canberra bureau, she was allegedly told by the network’s executive editor, Anthony Murdoch, “Peter is batshit crazy but we just have to get used to it” and that Van Onselen expected George to apologise for “hurting his feelings” by raising the issue.
George also complained about the behavior of other managers at the network, claiming one was “rude and hostile” to her.
George’s statement of claim, seen by Guardian Australia, says Ten managers told her the Canberra bureau had always been “toxic” and she needed to learn to “deal with it”.
The claim says Van Onselen rejected George’s complaint of being “unsupported, disrespected and unwelcome” and news management said the political editor “did not give a shit” about how she was feeling.
When Canberra staff complained about having to write Van Onselen’s TV news packages as well as their own, news boss Ross Dagan said “words to the effect that Mr van Onselen was the Network’s number one and said that they were all expected to build Mr van Onselen’s brand”, according to the statement of claim.
George claims that when she and a female colleague raised concerns about their workload with management they were asked by a manager (not Van Onselen): “What did you even do today? Painting your nails and drinking herbal tea?”
The federal political reporter claims the Ten Network, where she has worked for 11 years, breached her general protections under fair work laws by reducing her standing and reputation among her colleagues, subjecting her to speculation and gossip, causing her public embarrassment which made her feel Isolated and unsupported – in effect failing to provide a safe workplace.
George also claims she was pressured into making a formal statement after she “overheard a conversation in Network Ten’s Parliament House office between a Network Ten employee and a freelance camera operator in which a sexist remark was made about another employee.”
After initially resisting making a statement about the alleged remark in May 2021, she was threatened with disciplinary action and eventually relented, the statement says.
George claims Van Onselen backgrounded was against her and tweeted about “employees who witness” sexual harassment, but did not report it, a tweet she believed directed at her.
George claims that from early 2020 Van Onselen avoided talking to her and only communicated via text message, and further humiliated her by sending a script she had written to a minister behind her back.
“On 3 September 2020, Mr van Onselen sent parts of a script of an exclusive story about the federal government, written by Ms George to the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, prompting the Minister to demand corrections,” the claim says.
The claim says in February 2021 Van Onselen failed to acknowledge that a video of George questioning the prime minister about Brittany Higgins received almost 500,000 views on Twitter and he “publicly reprimanded Ms George for forgetting to send him her script on the previous Saturday”.
George claims Van Onselen variously used Twitter, Ten group emails and WhatsApp messages to general her.
On 21 June 2021, Van Onselen sent an email to the network’s Canberra bureau email group which read in part:
“…Tegan has extended her leave by another week…”
“… as mentioned I’m covering this weekend anyway. It will be my 15th straight day working so Alex has very kindly offered to double check my work!!!
In June last year George told management Van Onselen’s conduct was “belittling and passive aggressive” and that his “bullying and offensive conduct had a corrosive and devastating impact on her mental health”.
After a September meeting with Ten management and the media union at which George was visibly distressed, according to the statement of claim, Van Onselen published a tweet which she felt was directed at her.
George claims Van Onselend oppressed her by publishing thinly veiled tweets which some people would understand to be about her. He also directly replied to one of her tweets in a “rude, intemperate, condescending and patronising” tone which implied that she was “inexperienced, ignorant and wrong”, the statement of claim says.
George, who has deleted her Twitter account, is represented by employment lawyers Maurice Blackburn.
“As this is an employee matter, we will not be commenting,” a Ten spokesperson said.
Van Onselen has been approached for comment.
Network Ten is expected to file its defense to the claim in due course.
Van Onselen, an associate editor of the Australian, is a fill-in host on Ten’s The Project, co-hosting with Carrie Bickmore while Hamish Macdonald was on leave last week.
He is also a professor of politics at the University of Western Australia.