Gone in 60 Minutes

By Liz Burke

An Australian TV channel has been accused of putting ratings first as staff members and a young mum sit in a Lebanese jail, writes Liz Burke.

The 60 Minutes "child recovery" operation that has landed five Australians in a Lebanese prison was the result of a preference for television rating over protecting children, according to a radio commentator.

Media heavyweight Alan Jones blasted Channel 9 over its involvement in the botched operation, saying the network had become dysfunctional in its handling of the situation, during his morning programme yesterday.

The comments come as desperate mother Sally Faulkner, reporter Tara Brown and her accompanying crew - producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Ben Williamson and sound recordist David Ballment - prepared for another night behind bars after their arrest more than a week ago.

The currents affairs team had travelled to Lebanon with the Brisbane mother and a child recovery crew. They were arrested while trying to snatch her two children, Lahela, 6, and Noah, 4, who Faulkner says were taken to Lebanon by their father Ali Elamine and were never returned. The crew were hoping to film the operation for broadcast on the network's flagship programme.

As the situation wears on with little hope of criminal charges, including kidnapping, being lifted, Nine's involvement has come under question and criticism.

The network has so far refused to comment on the extent to which it was involved in facilitating and paying for the recovery mission by controversial mercenary group CARI.

As questions remain around who signed the reported A$115,000 ($128,630) cheque to CARI, families of those jailed are becoming irate at home. The Daily Telegraph reported that in a meeting with Nine's new chief executive Hugh Marks, the distraught partner of one of the incarcerated 60 Minutes staff demanded to know why her husband and his colleagues had been sent to Beirut to help a woman snatch her children.

"Child stealing? Is that what we do now?" she reportedly fumed.

Sally Faulkner with her children Lahela aged 6 years (centre) and Noah aged 4 years. Photo / Supplied
Sally Faulkner with her children Lahela aged 6 years (centre) and Noah aged 4 years. Photo / Supplied

Family members of the crew have met with Nine executives, though some have been dissatisfied with the network's handling of the situation, and complained of a lack of information.

While Nine struggles to take control behind the scenes, it's copping heat from external critics as well.

In his impassioned radio rant, Jones implied it was the network's own decisions that had led to so much distress for the families of Faulkner and the imprisoned staff members' families.

Jones said that while Faulkner's situation was understandable, the involvement of the programme was a pure ratings ploy that may have overlooked less explosive methods of retrieval.

"Everyone sympathises with the mother who's desperate to get her children back and all that stuff," he said.

"While Lebanon has not signed the UN's convention governing international custody disputes, Australia does have its own agreement with Lebanon for co-operation in protecting the welfare of children, and I'm not sure if anyone involved in this matter attempted to rely on that agreement," he said. "It seems here the preference was for television ratings via vigilante justice.

"Channel 9 has gone too far and now families of Australians are paying the price."

The network is trying to handle the situation internally.

In a company-wide memo seen by news.com.au, Marks assured staff the company would get to the bottom of questions around the situation, and that the presence of Nine executives and legal representatives had been well received in Beirut.

"My priority is to get our crew home and every decision is made through that prism, while providing whatever support we can give to those are impacted by these events," he wrote.

However, a former 60 Minutes member has predicted the fallout would be felt throughout the television industry, telling News Corp Australia the incident would "irrevocably change the way TV current affairs are now done in this country".

Clockwise from top left: Tara Brown, Ben Williamson, Stephen Rice and David Ballment.
Clockwise from top left: Tara Brown, Ben Williamson, Stephen Rice and David Ballment.

An insider slammed the long-running current affairs programme for its recent reliance on chequebook journalism, and said the team had taken their eye off the ball.

Media commentators have predicted heads will roll at the show and throughout the network's news division. Inside the station's Willoughby headquarters, fingers are being pointed at the programme's former executive producer Tom Malone, who helmed the show last year when talks with Faulkner began over the story, and current executive producer Kirsty Thomson who took the reins when Malone was promoted to Nine's director of sport in February.

Other senior television figures have defended the network and crew's actions.

"If they didn't take risks they wouldn't have a show," a former 60 Minutes employee told news.com.au.

"Crews definitely don't expect to be arrested, but they know they often have to take risks ... to get the job done and tell incredible stories."

Veteran broadcaster Ray Martin defended the ethics of the jailed crew, while recounting his own experience in filming a child recovery operation for the programme in the 1980s.

"I was aware of that and that's one of the risks you'd take," he said of his own experience.

"Ethically, as a journalist, I thought we were doing the right thing, because the courts had judged the case and decided that the mother had custody of the children, and the father had broken Australian laws and taken the children away."

Of the case of his colleagues detained in Lebanon, he said: "I know the crew are highly ethical, and I can't believe they would do something that's unethical.

"As journalists, we do stories that we think are right, and are ethical," he said.

"If you don't take risks in war zones and other areas then you don't do your job as a journalist."

- news.com.au

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