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What we learned from Four Corners' Sony Music Australia investigation.

The following post discusses sexual assault and harassment and might be triggering for some readers.

On Monday night, the ABC's Four Corners aired an investigation into former Sony Music Australia CEO Denis Handlin.

The ABC team spoke to more than 100 current and former staff from Sony Music Australia, who shared allegations about the toxic environment at one of Australia's biggest record companies, run for decades by Handlin.

Over five decades, Denis Handlin amassed a level of power that cannot be overstated.

Watch: The trailer for Four Corners' investigation. Post continues below video.


Video via ABC.

Handlin began his career in the mail room at Sony Music in 1970. He worked his way up and became CEO in 1984. He is the company's longest-serving employee globally.

He has been a member of the board at the Australian Recording Industry Association since 1984 and chairman of the ARIA Board since 2010.

In June, Handlin left Sony after five decades, as the company announced an investigation into its workplace culture, but it hasn't been enough to stifle the controversy surrounding him, Sony and the wider Australian music industry.

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Here are the biggest moments from the Four Corners investigation.

Allegations of 'systemic bullying'.

Eleanor McKay, a secretary at CBS Records - Sony's precursor - from 1985-1987 told Four Corners Handlin was "an equal opportunity abuser".

"The thing that really struck me was he would, sort of, do really demeaning things... there was one incident where he dropped all the papers from his briefcase and he made my boss get down and pick up all the papers," she recalled. "And it wasn't just that they'd offered to do it, like he told them, 'Pick that up!' 

"I used to say that the kindest thing I could say about Denis was that he was sort of an equal opportunity abuser, you know. He was as mean to men as he was to women."

Alan Terrey, Sony Music Australia's former finance director, said the alleged abuse happened right across the board, no matter the seniorority of the staff.

"His day-to-day dealings with people were pretty much at the executive level so they're the people who really copped the abuse and the toxic behaviour," he said.

"Occasionally, he would bring some lower minion into a board meeting and absolutely destroy them in front of his superior. But it was meted out to everybody, nobody escaped."

An attack over a meat pie.

Shane Earle worked as Denis Handlin’s private chauffeur for four years from 1997-2001.

He told Four Corners he often felt manipulated and abused, and he kept diares documenting Handlin's demands.

"There's only so much you can put up with. It might be just driving a car but you're trying to keep someone who’s reasonably unhinged, keep them on track. Not easy," Earle said.

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His job often required him to often pick up Handlin after late-night drinking sessions.

"He had a little regular stop which was Harry's Café de Wheels, a place where you buy a meat pie, down near the naval base, and a lot of people frequented, especially in the early hours of the morning," Earle recalled.

On one night, Handlin asked Earle for cash to buy a pie.

"'No, Denis, I don't have any money. Do you have any money? Because I don't,'" Earle recalled saying.

"All I got was, 'F*** you, f*** you, f*** you.' Screaming at the top of his voice. Just acting like, I don't know... A child. Because he didn't get his meat pie.

"It was relentless. I increased speed on the Harbour Bridge, and I kept increasing my speed because I just wanted him out. I was having so much trouble processing the yelling and the screaming, and also trying to drive... And he threw a phone at my head. So I stopped the car. I got out. He said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm leaving you.' So I grabbed my gear and I walked away."

Handlin dressed up as Hitler.

In an internal video obtained by Four Corners, Handlin is seen dressed up as Hitler in the office while parodying a Mel Brooks song.

He and other employees dressed in white parade through a room doing a Nazi salute, while he raps a song making fun of another record company.

Discrimination and sexual misconduct claims.

Financier controller Matthew McQuade, who worked at Sony from 1999-2004, said Handlin's attitude towards women created a very uncomfortable work environment.

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"I was standing with Denis and he started making sexual comments about an employee I'd just hired. Breasts, physique, those sorts of things. I mean, I would call it locker room chat," he recalled.

McQuade said Handlin's behaviour gave other people free rein to do similar things.

Terrey recalled Handlin telling him he needed to fire a long-term employee.

"Denis called me into his office one morning and said, 'Alan, the receptionist now reports to you directly.' I said, 'Fine. Okay.' He said, 'Now I want you to fire her.' I said, 'She's been our receptionist for 10 years.' He said, 'No, no, I want a younger, more attractive, sexier-looking person at the front desk to be the initial contact of the company.' So that receptionist, after 10 years’ service was fired."

Image: Getty.

Irene Saunders was national promotions and publicity manager at Sony Music Australia between 2004-2010. 

"It was so common that the male executives would comment, and leer at these women to their face, making comments about their bodies right out in the open, making leering comments about their breasts, or any part of their bodies like they were just an object, or a piece of meat," she recalled.

"And it was completely thought, it was just par for the course."

Four Corners revealed Handlin allowed two alleged perpetrators of sexual misconduct to remain at the company, despite formal complaints against them.

In one incident in 2016, a female employee alleged that during a work event at the Sony office, a naked male manager confronted her in a bathroom and sexually assaulted her. 

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The woman reported it directly to Denis Handlin and HR.

The alleged perpetrator continued on in a senior role at Sony for several more years. 

The female employee left the company with a $80,000 pay out and a non-disclosure agreement.

Women were pushed out during maternity leave.

Saunders told Four Corners the discrimination was most obvious when female employees fell pregnant.   

"I started to notice that as women would go off to have a child, and be on maternity leave, that they just wouldn't come back. And then it became like an open secret that if you had a child at Sony, you'd be made redundant on maternity leave. People just used to joke, 'Wow, how have you got kids at Sony? Haven't they got rid of you yet?'" she said.

Eventually, Saunders herself took maternity leave to have her third child.

She was a few months off returning to work when she received a phone call asking her to come in for a meeting.

"First of all, they expressed concerns that the type of job it is, going to gigs, and long hours, and so on, that's going to be tough to do with three kids, isn't it? And I thought to myself, Denis has six kids. Would you ask a man that?

"But then they said well, it looks like there's going to be a big restructure, there may not be a role for you, so you're going to be better off jumping first, before you're pushed."

Four Corners confirmed at least six women who were made redundant while on maternity leave over a six-year period, up to 2013. 

All received cash settlements, which usually came with a clause stating the terms of the termination couldn't be discussed.

Sony's global office knew about allegations within its Australian branch for decades.

In June, Sony Music's global head of human resources began an investigation into the workplace culture at the Australian arm of the business after a staff member in the Sydney office made a complaint.

That same month, The Guardian sent a letter outlining the allegations it had heard to the Sony head office in New York after investigating them for several months.

Denis Handlin and Alicia Keys at the ARIA Awards 2013. Image: Getty.

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The head office has stated it was unaware of the issues in Australia before this time.

"I think the thing that has upset most of us, was that New York said, 'Oh, we just found out about this problem, this has just come to light' and we know is such a load of hogwash. That myth has to be challenged," Terrey said.

Former driver Earle also said he told New York about Handlin's conduct after he was fired in 2001.

Greg Lockhard, who was the head of HR at Sony Music Australia from 1987-2001 said the company's New York office's claim was insulting.

"The neglect of corporate governance on this issue from New York is staggering," he said.

He recalled telling New York about issues decades ago.

"There had been multiple times through the 90s where I had told executives in New York what was happening, about the drinking, the bullying and the whole thing in the previous three or four years. And nothing happened from that."

A 1998 report into Handlin's conduct.

In June 1998, Sony's head office finally paid attention when an American executive reported Handlin’s behaviour. 

Terrrey received a phone call from New York.  

"He said, 'Alan, what's it like working for Denis Handlin?' And I said, 'I'll give it to you in two words: Utterly miserable.'"

Lockhart, head of HR, said he was asked to write a report for Sony's international president. He and three other executives including Terrey co-authored a nine-page document outlining Handlin's alleged conduct.

The report, which was obtained by Four Corners, included allegations of daily abuse, "frequent mad rages of screaming and bullying", humiliation and intimidation of staff and unequal treatment of women employees.

Initially, Sony's head office suspended Handlin and an investigation was launched.

The alleged misuse of company funds.

Phil Barter was the Financial Controller at Sony from 1995-1999, and as part of the investigation was asked to report on any examples where Handlin may have misused company funds.

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Barter said he provided evidence of a dozen different occasions when Handlin had allegedly spent company money on personal expenses – including up to $15,000 on his school reunion in Brisbane.  

The list also detailed an allegation that Handlin had spent company money at brothels.  

Allegations of private detective use.

On the final page of the report, Lockhart said Handlin instructed staff to be followed by private detectives.

"It was just the sheer fact that he requested such an event that happened that horrified me. Who says, you know, 'I run a company, I don't trust this person, I'm gonna get them followed to see what they're doing?' I've never heard of it before. And I hope I never hear of it again."

Publicly, Handlin spun his suspension as "medical leave". 

But after three months, Handlin returned to work.

Sony offered 15 senior employees cash incentives to stay on despite this, totalling three-quarters of a million dollars.

Nine of the executives involved, included Terrey, left Sony Music Australia within the next four years. 

Denis Handlin's statement.

Handlin declined to be interviewed for Four Corners' investigation, but he did release a statement to the ABC.

"I would never tolerate treating women in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner. At any time I was made aware of this sort of behaviour, I took action to ensure that it was stopped and didn't occur again. Over the years, this included seeing people at all levels leave the company. With issues of sexual misconduct, I always took immediate action... This included commissioning independent inquiries."

Former employees told the investigation they wanted Sony to be open and honest about Handlin's decades-long reign, his dismissal and the need for company-wide change.

"These people were traumatised. And until they see New York stand up and have the guts to come out and face the music on this, which is what everyone's expecting, this story is not going to go away," former HR manager Lockhart said.

You can watch the full Four Corners 'Facing The Music: The Sony Music Scandal' investigation here

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

Feature image: ABC/Getty.

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