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Sony Music and ARIA respond after TV investigation into toxic culture at major’s Australian division

By | Published on Tuesday 12 October 2021

Sony Music

Sony Music has issued another statement regarding the toxic corporate culture at its Australian division after a TV programme in the country put the spotlight on the sudden exit earlier this year of the major’s long-term boss in Australia, Denis Handlin, and the circumstances that led to his departure.

It was confirmed in June that an internal investigation was underway at Sony Music into allegations of bullying and abuse at its Australian division. That confirmation came as Handlin – who had run Sony Music Australia for decades – suddenly departed the company. Meanwhile, at the same time, The Guardian ran an article in which more than 20 former employees described a workplace culture that wasn’t fit for purpose.

The new investigation by Australian current affairs show ‘Four Corners’ into the Sony Music scandal summarised all the allegations that have been made in recent months about Handlin’s management style, and the abuse and harassment of employees that happened on his watch. It also included interviews with a number of people who saw Handlin’s running of Sony Music Australia first hand, who confirmed and expanded on those previous allegations.

One longtime Sony Music executive, Eleanor McKay, said: “The kindest thing I could say about Denis was that he was sort of an equal opportunity abuser. He was as mean to men as he was to women”. Though other people told ‘Four Corners’ that, while Handlin himself may not have treated female employees any different to male employees, he did tolerate – and arguably encourage – a workplace where “laddish language” and the objectifying of women was common place.

Among the big questions currently being debated is whether Sony Music HQ in New York was aware of the issues within its Australian business. It was certainly made aware of the problems in the late 1990s, when an investigation took place and Handlin stood down for three months as a result. But little changed after the CEO returned.

To what extent Sony Music’s overall bosses were subsequently alerted to the ongoing issues in the following two decades isn’t clear, though the official line is that the current top guard only became aware of the problems in recent months. However, critics point out that the toxic culture at the major’s Australian division was widely known within the music industry in Australia, so Sony Music HQ should have been aware of the problems even if it wasn’t.

In a statement issued to Variety yesterday, Sony Music said: “We take all allegations of bullying, harassment and other inappropriate behaviour from our employees very seriously and investigate them vigorously. Only recently did claims surface and we are examining them expeditiously”.

The fallout of Handlin’s departure from Sony Music is also affecting the record industry’s Australian trade body, the Australian Recording Industry Association. With criticisms being made about working practices in the Australian record industry beyond Sony, organisations like ARIA have a key role to play in bringing about industry-wide reforms. But then, it also had Handlin on its board for nearly four decades, from 1984 until his Sony departure this year.

In its own statement in response to the ‘Four Corners’ investigation, ARIA said yesterday: “No one should feel unsafe, harassed, discriminated against, or bullied in the workplace. ARIA will continue to work towards safety, inclusion and equality across the music industry including through the cultural change process that was started in May this year. We will listen to the voices that need to be heard and provide our wholehearted support every step of the way”.