60 Minutes producer Stephen Rice sacked over botched child snatch scandal in Beirut

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

60 Minutes producer Stephen Rice has been sacked over the program's botched child snatch scandal in Beirut, despite a panel of network peers recommending no staff involved in the story be "singled out for dismissal."

In a five-page summary of the review, conducted by the show's founding boss Gerald Stone, former corporate consultant David Hurley, and general counsel Rachel Launders, the panel found a series of "inexcusable errors" had led to "the gravest misadventure in the program's history" - which saw a team from Child Abduction Recovery International paid to grab the two children of Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner off a street in Beirut.

Faulkner and the 60 Minutes crew of Rice, reporter Tara Brown, sound recordist David Ballment and camera man Ben Williamson were arrested on April 7 by Lebanese police and detained until a rumoured $1 million payment to the children's father Ali Elamine secured their release and settled his civil claim against them.

Faulkner was also forced to relinquish full custody of her two children, Noah, 4 and Lahela, 6, after the plan to bring them home to Australia went so horribly wrong.

Australian TV journalist Tara Brown, left, and Sally Faulkner, right, the mother of the two Australian children, sit in a minivan after they were released from a Lebanese jail. Photo: AP
Australian TV journalist Tara Brown, left, and Sally Faulkner, right, the mother of the two Australian children, sit in a minivan after they were released from a Lebanese jail. Photo: AP

CARI agent and former Australian soldier Adam Whittington, who was paid $115,000 directly by the TV network to do the snatch-and-run, remains in a Tripoli jail on kidnapping charges.

Nine CEO Hugh Marks conceded: "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."

The company chief admitted: "among 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."

He added: "we also accept a broader obligation to get our judgment calls right regarding what stories we pursue, and how we pursue them. Implementations of the recommendations of the review will assist us in making the right choices in the future."

It is understood Tom Malone, the program's former EP, and his successor, Kirsty Thomson, who was acting as chief-of-staff at the time the story was commissioned, were both issued with formal warnings over their managerial roles and failing to raise the "high risk" plan with more senior executives, including Nine's news and current affairs director, Darren Wick.

He added: "we also accept a broader obligation to get our judgment calls right regarding what stories we pursue, and how we pursue them. Implementations of the recommendations of the review will assist us in making the right choices in the future."
It is understood Tom Malone, the program's former EP, and his successor, Kirsty Thomson, who was acting as chief-of-staff at the time the story was commissioned, were both issued with formal warnings over their managerial roles and failing to raise the "high risk" plan with more senior executives, including Nine's news and current affairs director, Darren Wick.

The internal review of the incident concluded "the erosion of clear and appropriate referral guidelines must also be taken into consideration as a failure at the management level of Nine," stating: "the degree of autonomy granted to 60 Minutes 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."

It was revealed a "query raised by one of Nine's internal lawyers about making a payment directly to CARI was discounted by the producer [Rice] (on the basis that payments to third parties had been done before) and so the issue was not escalated to senior management for a review of the producer's proposal."

In making its key recommendations surrounding the approval process of stories, risk assessment, approval of contracts and cultural issues, the review panel said:

• The program's EP should be given "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;
• The network's head of news should approve any story requiring overseas travel or any stories which are rated as "high risk;"
• A new objective framework for assessing risk relating to stories need to be developed, based on Nine's existing safe work procedures; including location, security, proposed activities of the 60 Minutes team, possible effects on the show's reputation, financial cost, as well as risk of legal or regulatory action and public interest in the story;
• A review of the approval of contracts to consider and clearly specify the appropriate dollar value thresholds that apply to its director of news and executive producers;
• And 60 Minutes staff should be empowered to express their concerns ie to safety or reputation about participating in a story or producing a story, so as to develop a better culture of risk consciousness and risk management.

Mr Marks defended the legitimacy of the custody issue highlighted by the program, adding: "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," Mr Marks said.

Nine Entertainment Co. chairman Peter Costello said after consideration of the report, its recommendations and response of management, the Board "has decided to put in place a strengthened Risk Assessment Process in addition to enhanced financial controls and delegations. These procedures will be verified on a regular basis."

In a legal note, the statement said: "while civil claims brought by the father Ali Elamine against the 60 Minutes crew and Ms Faulkner have been settled, the crew potentially faces cases to answer from the Lebanese justice system. Until these matters have been clarified, Nine, 60 Minutes and the members of the crew remain limited in what they can say about these events so as not to prejudice any legal proceedings in Lebanon."

Review member, Stone 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 form 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."

- news.com.au

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