Veteran TV programmer John Stephens has been the subject of a bitter battle between rival networks Ten and Seven. Photo: Brendan Esposito
Veteran programmer John Stephens says the Seven Network did not induce him to breach a contract with Ten and his decision to walk away from the deal was primarily due to the enormity of the task that lay ahead of him at the struggling network.
Stephens defected to Ten from Seven in March, only to backflip on the deal days later and remain with Seven.
Over that weekend when I did change my mind I thought to myself: 'Do I really need this at my age?'
Ten sued Seven, alleging it induced Stephens to breach the contract and sought to stop him from working with its rival free-to-air broadcaster for two years.
The Supreme Court of NSW ruled on Thursday that the contract that Stephens signed with Ten remained active, but did not grant Ten injunctive relief to stop him from working at Seven.
Stephens told Fairfax Media on Thursday that Ten's fortunes appeared bleak after its coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games concluded and that, at 67 and after a hip replacement, he feared the task was too great.
"In essence I took into account my age [and] the fact that Ten looked like they were about to hit a pretty tough period after the Winter Olympics," he said.
"Over that weekend when I did change my mind I thought to myself: 'Do I really need this at my age?' I've been through enough stress and pressure over the years, working for Network Ten 25, 30-odd years ago and I worked for Nine and Kerry Packer all those years... they were stressful enough."
Mr Stephens said Seven did not induce him to breach the contract with Ten.
"Look, honestly, in my mind, it was me that made the call. It was nothing really to do with Seven trying to entice me to change my mind."
Judge James Stevenson said communications between Seven executives and Mr Stephens, as well as a new offer to stay with Seven, in the days after he signed with Ten were "a contributing cause" or a "significant factor" in his decision.
"In my opinion, Mr Stephens would not have acted as he did, absent Seven's conduct," he said.
But he did not grant the injunction sought by Ten.
'Annoying attempt at distraction'
Judge Stevenson said the question of whether Mr Stephens' contract with Ten was enforceable would be best considered "if and when Ten seeks to take further action under it".
The agreement with Ten contained a clause preventing Mr Stephens from working with any other entity without Ten's written consent.
Because the agreement was ruled to be "on foot", Ten could take further legal action against Mr Stephens if it thought he was in breach of that agreement.
Judge Stevenson said Ten might have been seeking to "purchase an injunction" in reference to its extraordinary offer to pay Mr Stephens two years' salary not to work at Seven or Nine, even if he did not work at Ten.
"In my opinion, the extraordinary offer is not something I should take into account," Judge Stevenson said. "It seems to me that Ten is seeking to purchase an injunction."
Seven said in a statement that it welcomed the court's decision not to grant Ten injunctive relief and that Seven did not induce Mr Stephens to breach the contract.
"We are pleased that this annoying attempt at distraction by Ten is concluded," said the statement.
"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."
The judge will hear Seven and Ten on whether costs will be awarded to either party.