Outgoing Nine Entertainment Co chief executive Hugh Marks has conceded his relationship with former subordinate Alexi Baker worried some of the media company's directors, and he described recent board meetings as occasionally lacking "calmness".
The 54-year-old executive announced his resignation on Saturday afternoon amid persistent speculation and reporting about his personal life. Mr Marks split from his wife late last year and told The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday that he was in a relationship with Ms Baker, who reported to him as managing director of commercial before quitting on October 1.
Mr Marks told The Herald and Age that he decided a year ago to relinquish the top job at the free-to-air television, streaming, publishing and digital company once all staff moved into its new headquarters in North Sydney at the end of 2020. However, he had not "made any decisions about exactly when".
"When it became clear this relationship was going to become a subject of ridiculous gossip and so much pressure was going to come on the people in the business I just said to myself the right thing to do at this point is to take that pressure off the business and its people," Mr Marks said.
Mr Marks said on Saturday the relationship with Ms Baker began "a couple of months ago" but would not say exactly when or on what date he informed chairman Peter Costello. He said he did not award Ms Baker bonuses or promote her during the course of their relationship.
"We've had COVID, there's been no bonuses through that period and I think a promotion was early this year. Anything that's done here is done with due process. I've always been really scrupulous about that stuff," he said.
Mr Marks, who became chief executive of Nine (owner of this masthead) in November 2015, has overseen a transformation of the media company through the $4 billion merger with Fairfax Media in 2018, the acquisition of radio company Macquarie Media (which owns 2GB and 3AW), a landmark broadcast deal with Tennis Australia in 2019 and this month's acquisition of rugby and tennis rights for streaming service Stan.
Nine has emerged from the coronavirus advertising slump in better shape than its commercial rivals which have been forced to receive government support or cut staff pay. Its shares closed at $2.44 on Friday, near two year highs, and last week the company provided the market with upgraded earnings forecasts.
"I feel that the culture is in a good place - no doubt it will take a dent from what's happened to me but people will have to pick themselves up off the floor. I think it's an area that the board is responsible for so it's something they should continue to check in on," he said.
Mr Marks would not speak about speculation the board had received a letter complaining about Nine's culture but indicated recent meetings before and after Thursday's annual general meeting had been fractious at times.
Mr Marks stopped short of saying all directors supported him at a lengthy meeting that decided his resignation on Saturday. Nine's board includes former Fairfax directors (Deputy Chairman Nick Falloon, Patrick Allaway and Mickie Rosen) and members of the old Nine board (Mr Costello, Samantha Lewis and Catherine West).
Was someone out to get me? I don't know, I don't really care. This [resignation] was a decision already in my head - not ideal that I had to pull it yesterday.Nine CEO Hugh Marks
"I think it's best that we keep some of that stuff behind the scenes because it's not really that relevant. That sort of stuff can be a trigger for things but I think it was just heightened gossip. Was someone out to get me? I don't know, I don't really care. This [resignation] was a decision already in my head - not ideal that I had to pull it yesterday," he said.
"The board certainly has the view that I've done a great job here - the business in a great shape because of the work we've done as a team but with me as a leader. Maybe there could have been calmer minds in some situations and calmer voices - that's what I would do in this situation."
When asked if he had lied to any board directors about his relationships, Mr Marks said: "I think that's all been covered." The Board declined to respond to questions about Mr Marks' behaviour or investigations into company culture. "We will deal with all matters in line with good corporate governance and the company’s policies," a Nine spokeswoman said.
Mr Marks' resignation occurred the same week that ABC's Four Corners made allegations about allegedly inappropriate behaviour of Attorney-General Christian Porter and population minister Alan Tudge with female staffers on Monday. The investigation, which aired on ABC last Monday, prompted a broader discussion about whether relationships between leaders and subordinates are appropriate.
"I think there are aspects to any relationship, particularly at my level with another senior executive, raises questions," Mr Marks said. "It seems to me that people are finding it a challenge to express what the relevant issue might be and the issues to me are has anyone suffered harm, is there a conflict of interest...If you stick to those principles then the existence of relationship if handled properly should be possible."
News Corporation's Daily Telegraph has implied Mr Marks was previously in a romantic relationship with his executive assistant, Jane Routledge. Mr Marks denies this.
"We've been friends since we started at Nine together when I was 29 and she was 25 so we've been close ever since that period and we just always got on," Mr Marks said. "Enough has been said about [Jane] in this process and a lot of people have suffered because of gossip about me. Romantic relationship? No. We've just been mates for that period."
Mr Marks has booked leave for two weeks at the end of November but is adamant he can work through the transition period despite the scrutiny.
"My job is becoming less of running the day to day of the business and more of working with more key executives to help and guide and make sure that we make the right big decisions," he says.
Irrespective of the way he departed, Mr Marks said he is proud of the legacy he has left behind. As the first chief executive of the merged Nine and Fairfax Media business, Mr Marks will be remembered as one the most influential Australian media executives.
"I've always regarded myself as a kind of steward of this business. I came in with a idea of what I wanted to do and I think when I started there was a view that you know the business, maybe didn't have a bright future. We've been able to prove that's not the case," he says.