60 Minutes kidnapping fiasco comes down to the question: who signed off on the money for the ‘child recovery operation’?

The fate of the 60 Minutes crew, who were stuck in a Beirut jail facing kidnapping charges, has dominated headlines for weeks. Nic Christensen looks at the questions Nine's management team now faces and the questions whether anyone will be held to account.

Nic-Christensen-234x151-234x151-234x151The plight of journalist Tara Brown, Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner and the 60 Minutes crew has, rightly, kicked off a public debate about the ethics of chequebook journalism.

But the key questions here are: what did Nine think it was paying for? How did they think it was okay to make a $115,000 payment to ex-soldiers to grab children from their grandparents in the middle of Beirut? And finally who signed off on all this?

NewspapersBrown, Faulkner and co are now free – after Nine is reported to have paid a substantial sum of money to the father of Faulkner’s children Ali Elamine – and Nine is conducting an internal review to look at what went wrong, and how the TV network became embroiled in an international kidnapping fiasco.

Yet the question at the heart of this will come back to exactly who authorised Nine to make payments to the ‘child recovery firm’ of ex-Australian soldier Adam Whittington.

Nine has consistently refused to answer questions around whether it paid money for the story but late yesterday as Whittington, and members of his team, continued to languish in a Beirut prison the documents proving Nine paid them emerged through the Lebanese courts.

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The documents showing Nine’s payment directly to Whittington.

The financial documents, complete with the ANZ logo, show an international transfer payment from a TCN Channel Nine Pty Ltd account to the account of the personal company of Adam Whittington IPCA Ltd in Stockholm.

This particular payment is for $69,000 and The Australian has previously reported there were two separate payments totalling just more than $115,000, with the documents making reference to “Investigation Into My Missing Child’’.

60 minutesFor many TV insiders, the fact that Nine paid the money directly to the “child recovery” operators is extraordinary and it will be interesting to see what the internal review headed by former A Current Affair boss David Hurley, ex-60 Minutes executive producer Gerald Stone and the company’s legal adviser Rachel Launders finds.

It is hard to fathom how 60 Minutes would have be able to make these sizeable financial payments – equivalent to the salaries of, say, two junior producers – to Whittington without getting approval from senior management, both within its editorial division and also its corporate ranks.

To date, much of the public debate around the 60 Minutes fiasco has focused on the wider journalistic ethics debate: on one side you have those which have questioned the ethics that has gone into this story and noting that when you pay, it has the potential to change the nature of the story.

On the other side, is a commercial competitive reality where many of the TV networks buy stories and where ‘tagging along’ on child recovery operations is a relatively common practice, aimed at highlighting the thousands of children taken from Australia by one parent and not returned.

For an insight into this perspective read Jenna Martin’s, the daughter of Ray Martin, piece on News.com.au where she writes: “I defy any journo not to have run with this story if it landed in their laps. For the kudos at the other end, sure, but also ethically because it was probably right thing to do.”

It’s not a perspective I can agree with – the story is a legitimate one but that legitimacy becomes lost when money becomes involved and suddenly you find yourself funding a kidnapping in the middle of Beirut.


CCTV of the ‘child recovery’ operation funded by Nine.

While Australians have been captivated by what has become one of the media stories of the year, public sentiment wasn’t on the side of Brown and co while the were stuck in a Lebanese jail.

Many Australians would be horrified if a Lebanese TV network had done the equivalent and had flown to Sydney and paid former soldiers to grab children off the street and, likewise, many Aussies have been horrified at the images of what happened in Beirut.

If Faulkner had hired Whittingdon independent of the TV network and Nine had just come along for the ride, that would have been one thing. But in paying for the operation, Nine became complicit in, what under Lebanese law was, a kidnapping.

Nine CEO Hugh Marks has now conceded as much, telling staff yesterday in an email :

“At no stage did anyone from Nine or 60 Minutes intend to act in any way that made them susceptible to charges that they breached the law or to become part of the story that is Sally’s story.

“But we did become part of the story and we shouldn’t have.”

The 60 Minutes team have been lucky to get out, helped by what appears to have been a generous payment by Nine in what John Lyons, a former EP of Nine’s Sunday program, describes as “chequebook justice”.

The Nine internal review will have to look at how this story got commissioned: did desperate mother Faulkner approach Nine? Did Whittington’s firm? And who was it that raised the question of money?

Freed 60 minutes reporter Tara Brown and mother Sally Faulkner.

Freed 60 minutes reporter Tara Brown and mother Sally Faulkner.

Nine’s internal review is yet to formally begin and it will have to look at how former 60 Minutes EP Tom Malone and current EP Kirsty Thomson gave the okay for this operation to go ahead.

Did news boss Darren Wick know about the story and the payments (there are suggestions he didn’t) and if not, why not?

And finally what did Nine CEO Hugh Marks and former CEO David Gyngell know about all this? Did they okay the $115,000 payment? If not, who did?

It’s certainly unlikely that it came from the 60 Minutes budget alone without the approval of someone on the corporate side of the business.

At this stage it appears unclear if the Sally Faulkner story, and the legal saga that followed the attempt to recover her children, will eventually make it to air.

This Sunday’s 60 Minutes episode will feature an update on situation and show the crew being reunited with their families and it is thought it will take some time to work through what footage they have to craft a story, in which they are a central actor.

If they do choose to air the full story of what went down in Lebanon, Nine would be right to acknowledge their complicity and acknowledge they went too far.

In the ultra competitive world of television, the TV networks will continue to pay for stories. But some recognition that there is an ethical line you shouldn’t cross might give them pause next time a story like this lands on their lap.

Nic Christensen is the media and technology editor of Mumbrella. 


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