The nature of the beast

By Liz Burke

The 60 Minutes crew thinly avoided a long stretch in prison but, writes Liz Burke, it won’t stop media outlets paying for stories.
Australian television presenter Tara Brown and producer Stephen Rice arrive at Sydney International Airport. Photo / Getty Images
Australian television presenter Tara Brown and producer Stephen Rice arrive at Sydney International Airport. Photo / Getty Images

Depending on who you talk to, chequebook journalism is either an inexcusable scourge that goes against everything the craft is supposed to stand for, or it's the nature of the beast.

It's also where the 60 Minutes fiasco that saw a group of journalists and the "talent" for their story jailed in Lebanon all started.

The crew had headed to downtown Beirut for what was supposed to be a "child recovery" exclusive.

The botched operation saw star reporter Tara Brown, producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Ben Williamson and sound recordist David Ballment and mother Sally Faulkner, whose children they were attempting to bring back to Australia, fighting kidnapping charges and facing up to 20 years in a Beirut prison.

The team has been returned to Australia and Faulkner freed to negotiate a custody agreement with the children's father, while the founder and an employee of the child recovery organisation they engaged remain behind bars.

Though Australian TV network Nine has consistently refused to answer questions over whether it paid money for the story, now there's proof the network paid A$69,000 ($74,693) directly to the personal company of Adam Whittington, the imprisoned head of Child Abduction Recovery International.

News Corp has previously reported the network made two separate payments totalling more than A$115,000.

Paying for stories is not a new practice in Australia, but it's a controversial one, with TV shows 60 Minutes, A Current Affair, and Sunday Night, along with magazines the Australian Women's Weekly and Woman's Day among the main offenders.

Now that a paid-for story has had a disastrous outcome, it's once again called into question the ethics of chequebook journalism, and what can go wrong in reporting a story once money is added to the mix.

From families like the Corbys making millions from capitalising on the media's interest in them, to the more recent case of Australian TV personality and singer Kerri-Anne Kennerley reportedly pocketing A$350,000 to discuss the deterioration of her husband's health.

A family tragedy can earn victims upwards of A$10,000, while a celebrity wedding or baby picture deal can rocket to the hundreds of thousands.

Chequebook journalism is a longstanding part of the Australian media landscape, but it's not one we've ever been entirely comfortable with.

Even current affairs veteran Ray Martin admitted this week: "I don't think anyone likes paying".

"There's a taint when you've got to pay for any aspect of the story, but that's the real world," he told ABC's 7.30.

Martin, who presented paid-for stories for both A Current Affair and 60 Minutes during his long career at Nine, reluctantly explained the need to pay for important stories that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day.

"We paid a lot of money for Lindy Chamberlain, otherwise we wouldn't have got the interview with Lindy Chamberlain," he said.

"There are stories that television stations, unfortunately, and magazines pay for. It doesn't mean the story's going to be ethically wrong or soft or anything else. It's got nothing to do with the story itself, it's the access to the story."

An industry insider pointed out to news.com.au that exchanging money is often the only way to secure an exclusive, and often subjects "deserved" to be paid.

In her speech at the annual Andrew Olle media lecture, former Australian Women's Weekly editor Helen McCabe provided a different justification.

"Look, chequebook journalism is a fact of life," she said.

"No one begrudges victims of crime being remunerated for their ordeal, but there are pitfalls."

Celebrity agent Max Markson prefers to refer to chequebook journalism as "the business of selling stories". He's been acting as an agent for talent in news stories - characters like Corey Worthington to more established figures Bob Hawke and Blanche d'Alpuget and Oscar Pistorius - for over 25 years.

Markson has attached price tags in the hundreds of thousands to some of the exclusives he's spruiked, and he reckons they're worth the price.

"If the story comes along and they want it they'll pay for it, if they don't want it they won't pay for it. That's the nature of the beast," he says.

"What they're paying for, the magazines or the TV shows, is exclusivity, and that's very valuable to them. They want to get the best story." Markson acknowledges that one of the main pieces of criticism directed towards chequebook journalism is that the story could be compromised, the journalist's editorial independence bought off.

But he says in the dozens of deals that he's brokered, whether it be to a single local publication or a global multi-outlet agreement, he's never attached conditions that prevent any side of the story being told.

"Never. Never, ever," he said.

"Every time I do them, they're telling their story. You get a better story for it.

"You're getting raw emotions, and if 60 Minutes for instance, or whoever, has paid for that story they'll spend the time on it.

"They want to get bang for their buck but also they want to get the best story they can."

Even though he's all for it, Markson knows there are ethical issues at play when it comes to paid-for stories, and says he prepares his talent for it too.

"I always prepare talent that when it comes out that they've been paid, they're going to get flack," he says.

"But the criticism usually comes from within the media, and almost always from the competitors who missed out on the story."

Head of journalism at Curtin University, Jeremy Fernandez, says that while journalists, particularly those in the competitive commercial landscape, believe exchanging cash for access to talent is just the way it is, there are good reasons the public doesn't like it.

"One ground for paying for stories is that such payments run counter to the ideals of the free flow of information and counter to the ideals of journalism," he told news.com.au.

"The very purpose of large payments is to acquire something that will generate commercial returns that will make it worth the while of the media organisation making the payment.

"Such considerations run counter to the ideals of journalism which at its core subscribes to ethical principles and to truth telling."

The 60 Minutes case is unique. The question over whether the money was paid in exchange for the services of child snatchers, rather than for a personal story, will have a significant impact on how the situation is judged. The fact children were at risk is also significant.

Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has described the programme's involvement in pursuing a child recovery operation in Lebanon as "most unwise".

But no matter what the consequences are for the crew or the network, or how many heads roll over the fiasco, industry commentators are in agreement the outcome is unlikely to have a major effect on the prevalence of chequebook journalism in Australian media.

"What's happened here is they went into it hoping for a great story, and it didn't come out that way, but it won't affect chequebook journalism," Markson said.

"If the story comes along and they want it they'll pay for it, if they don't want it, they won't pay for it. That's the nature of the beast."

- news.com.au

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