60 Minutes producer exits as internal review finds major faults with Lebanon story

Tara-Brown-468x255The 60 Minutes producer behind the bungled child kidnapping story in Lebanon will be departing  Channel Nine after an internal review revealed major flaws in the story approval process that led to its 60 Minutes’ crew being arrested and charged.

Stephen Rice is leaving Nine while other staff involved in the planning and execution of the Sally Faulkner story have received formal warnings. Rice’s departure comes despite no official recommendation being made in the review to sack staff.

Nine CEO Hugh Marks said in statement: “The manner in which we produced Sally Faulkner’s story exposed our crew to serious risks, and exposed 60 Minutes and Nine to significant reputational damage. We got too close to the story and suffered damaging consequences.

“Amongst other elements of the execution of this story it was inappropriate, and at odds with our standard procedure, for a payment to be made directly by 60 Minutes to the recovery agency that had been independently contracted by Sally Faulkner. It was also inappropriate, with the risks involved for our crew, not to have consulted with Nine’s security advisers before the story was finalised.”

The internal review concluded that there was little practical difference in paying the company responsible for the botched kidnapping attempt and paying Faulkner “when Nine well knew wall all of the funds would be used for”.

It also suggested that after 37 years on air “60 Minutes had begun to blur the line between stories of genuine public interest and those catering to public curiosity”.

Gerald Stone, former executive producer of 60 Minutes, said: “I had the honour to help start that stopwatch ticking 37 years ago and regrettably this has been the gravest misadventure in the program’s history.

“It’s clear from our findings that inexcusable errors were made. I still believe, however, that 60 Minutes – lessons learned – can continue to earn the respect and attention of the viewing public for years to come.”

The review concluded the following:

  • poor judgement, which manifested in a number of respects (such as the extent of the due diligence on the expertise of CARI, payment of funds direct to CARI, lack of consideration given to alternative exit strategies from Lebanon, failure to raise concerns about the proposed story with 60 Minutes management and failure to notify 60 Minutes management when it appeared that the plan for implementation would not operate as intended);

  • failure to adhere to Nine’s usual procedures relating to consideration of security risks, safety assessments and approval of contractual arrangements;

  • a significant level of autonomy for producers, without adequate oversight by management on issues that raised significant risks to Nine; and

  • trust in the deep experience and capabilities of the team members who went to Beirut and a strong culture of team loyalty and unity, which did not encourage team members to press concerns.

The review suggests that if Nine’s usual procedures had been adhered to “the errors of judgement may have been identified earlier, with the result that the story would not have been undertaken at all, or at least not in the way in which it was implemented”.

Marks said: “As a result of the review, we are expanding and upgrading our processes related to story selection and approval, how we approve contracts and payments and the way we conduct risk assessments. We have an obligation to our staff, our shareholders and our viewers to operate in ways that enhance our reputation as a leading producer of news and current affairs.

“We also accept a broader obligation to get our judgement calls right regarding what stories we pursue, and how we pursue them. Implementation of the recommendations of the review will assist us in making the right choices in the future,” Marks said.

“More than two children a week are believed to be taken from Australia as part of custody disputes. It is an important issue that 60 Minutes was attempting to bring to wider public attention and we hope that the actions of our crew have not in any way diminished the importance of the issue.

“At its best, 60 Minutes represents outstanding journalism that remains of vital importance to our viewers, to the wider community and to Nine. This incident, while deeply regrettable does not diminish our commitment to the program or our confidence in its future given the highly talented team who produce the program each week.”

Nine defended the decision to cover Sally Faulker’s story, stating: “Sally Faulkner’s sad plight certainly warranted coverage. It points to the sometimes insurmountable hurdles confronted by this multi-cultural country in dealing with the inevitable ‘tug-of-love’ conflicts between estranged spouses who wish to live in different countries.”

However the channel admitted the story “could have been told in a number of ways that did not expose Nine to formidable risks”.

The internal review saw the crew, producers and journalists involved  in the planning and execution of the story were interview and those directly involved “had no hesitation in agreeing that there had been a series of inexcusable failures”.

“The reporting team had formed a genuine emotional attachment to Ms Faulkner and as they saw it, the justice of her cause. Worthy as that might sound, such commitment has its obvious pitfalls in coverage of a custody dispute between parents of different nationalities. In this case, it led to 60 Minutes grossly underestimating a number of factors, not least being the power or willingness of a foreign government to enforce its law,” the review found.

“That type of misjudgement is not to be expected of seasoned journalists and is bound to tarnish the program’s world-wide reputation for credible reportage.”

The review also concluded “the erosion of clear and appropriate referral guidelines must also be taken into consideration as a failure at the management level of Nine”.

It said the “degree of autonomy” granted to the program “was so great that the executive producer saw no need to consult with the director of news & current affairs on the wisdom of commissioning this story”.

This degree of autonomy saw a producer discount a query raised by an internal Nine lawyer about making a payment directly to the child retrieval company on the basis that payments to third parties had been done before.

“The high level of autonomy given to producers, and the reluctance of team members to voice concerns indicates a culture which supports risk taking, without appropriate checks and balances to identify excessive levels of risk,” the review found.

While the review did not recommend staff be sacked over the Sally Faulkner story it was suggested they be censured “in the strongest terms”.

“The staff of 60 Minutes has been thoroughly traumatised by the circumstances which confronted four of the team in Beirut, and by the steady barrage of hostile comment. They are now fully aware how much damage they have caused to the reputation of Nine,” the review recommended.

“The chief executive officer and director of news & current affairs must ensure that all members of the 60 Minutes team are ready and eager to learn from that lesson.”

The review recommended a number of steps to be taken to “improve the risk assessment and risk management procedures by which 60 Minutes operates”.

They include:

1. Approval of stories

a. The Executive Producer of 60 Minutes should approve all stories on the basis of a precise, written briefing on the nature of the 60 Minutes team’s proposed activities and the extent of reliance on third parties, to implement the story, before any contract is signed relating to the story or any material steps are taken to commission the story.

b. The Director of News & Current Affairs should approve any story requiring overseas travel or any stories which are rated as “high risk” (see below).

c. The Executive Producer of 60 Minutes should be given a precise, written briefing on any material changes which occur to the proposed scope of activities of the 60 Minutes team or the reliance on third parties over the course of developing and producing a story.

d. The Executive Producer of 60 Minutes needs express authority to cancel a story at any time (even during filming) if it is considered that the risks of proceeding with the story outweigh the benefits of proceeding.

2. Risk assessment

a. An objective framework for assessing risk relating to stories needs to be developed, based on Nine’s existing safe work procedures. The risks to be considered include location, security, proposed activities of the 60 Minutes team (eg risk of injury), possible effects on the reputation of Nine, financial cost, risk of legal or regulatory action, and public interest in the story.

b. That framework must be applied to any stories which 60 Minutes is proposing, to identify whether further risk assessment and risk management is required.

c. Nine should obtain appropriate external risk assessment advice on any proposed activities:

i. which are rated as high risk by reference to the risk assessment framework;

ii. which involve travel to countries which are rated as “exercise a high degree of caution” or above by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Travel;

iii. which involve countries that are rated below average against an objective corruption index (eg the Transparency International Corruptions Perceptions Index:

d. Nine should ensure that its training plan includes risk assessment techniques to assist producers and other relevant team members in identifying the “red flags” which should be investigated further, before proceeding with a story.

3. Approval of contracts

a.Nine’s Delegation of Authority Policy should be reviewed and, if considered appropriate, amended, to clearly specify the appropriate dollar value thresholds that apply to the Director of News & Current Affairs and Executive Producers.

b. Nine should educate all relevant staff on the level of delegated authority which is held by different categories of staff members, and who is authorised to sign particular types of contracts.

c. Any payments to third parties (ie not the party to the contract) should be approved by the Executive Producer and the Director of News & Current Affairs, after consultation with the legal team. The producer must provide details of the 60 Minutes team’s planned activities, to allow others to make an informed decision on this issue.

4. Cultural issues

a. Nine needs to consider further the steps required to ensure that all staff at 60 Minutes feel empowered to express their concerns (eg to safety or reputation) about participating in a story or about 60 Minutes producing a story.

b. Nine needs to encourage open communication across the whole 60 Minutes team about the stories which are being planned and risks which should be considered, so that there is a better culture of risk consciousness and risk management.

The review makes no mention of the Australian child recovery staffer who still remains in custody in Lebanon.


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