The mystery of the 60 Minutes child snatch that went so disastrously wrong is that there is no mystery, although some people want to contrive one.
Ethically there are no shades of grey here. We know what happened, and we know that what 60 Minutes and TCN Nine agreed to do by helping Sally Faulkner abduct her children in Beirut violated a fundamental tenet of journalism.
That tenet can be simply expressed: don’t make yourself a player in the story, especially not by paying other players in the story. Because if you do, your audience has no reason to trust your account of what the story is.
That’s it. It’s as basic as that, and it is what 60 Minutes did. No amount of obfuscation and special pleading will change that.
But the obfuscators are emerging nonetheless, unctuously intent on mystifying the story after all.
Not least among them is Tara Brown, the reporter 60 Minutes sent to Beirut.
After Brown, her producer Stephen Rice, camera operator Ben Williamson and sound recordist David Ballment had returned to Australia from their two-week stint in a Beirut jail, she insisted that they ‘were just journalists doing their job’.
Apparently this is why Brown felt confident that she and her colleagues would quickly be released.
“The ‘mistakes and failings’ narrative evades the truth, too. It is another attempt to mystify what is not mysterious, because it replaces a moral evaluation of the events with a technical one.”
‘I really thought, we’re journalists, we’re doing our job, they will see reason, they’ll understand that,’ she said. ‘That we are here just to do a story on a very desperate mother.’
Except that 60 Minutes‘ involvement in the story went way beyond following Sally Faulkner to Beirut to see whether she could reclaim her children Lahela, five, and Noah, three, from their father, her former partner Ali Elamine.
Lawyers acting for Adam Whittington and his euphemistically named ‘child recovery team’, who are all still in custody in Beirut, have tendered in court a document indicating that Nine paid Whittington nearly $70,000 for his work.
Nine has not officially admitted funding the abductors, but in the circumstances the network’s refusal to comment comes about as close to exemplifying the maxim that silence gives consent as can be imagined.
The reason for the disclosure of the payment to Whittington’s company, Child Abduction Recovery International, is obvious enough.
Whittington’s lawyer, Joe Karam, said that he wished his client and the three contractors who worked with him had been included in the settlement that allowed Faulkner and the 60 Minutes team to be released from jail.
Nothing brings out the truth like pique at being left behind.
Nine is reported to have paid Ali Elamine $US500,000 to drop abduction charges against Faulkner and the 60 Minutes crew. In return, Faulkner waived her right to custody of the children, which had been granted by the Family Court in Australia.
She might never see them again, unless their father, who was given custody by a Shia court in Lebanon, allows her to visit them in Beirut — in which case she could still be at risk of criminal charges.
So ‘doing a story on a very desperate mother’ involved paying a team of international kidnappers to abduct the children, then paying their father an eye-poppingly large amount of money to allow their mother and the journalists to walk free.
The release of the 60 Minutes team had nothing to do with them being ‘just journalists doing their job’, and after this grubby set of payments the very desperate mother is worse off than she was before.
All of this amounts to what Brown’s 60 Minutes colleague Michael Usher has described as ‘mistakes and failings’ in the handling of the story, which is now subject to an internal review at Nine.
Mistakes there certainly were. The Lebanese police were able to find the children, their abductors, Faulkner and the 60 Minutes team because Ben Williamson asked Faulkner if he could film her calling Elamine to tell him she had the children.
When she rang off, Elamine reported the call to the police. They checked the number and found that the phone Faulkner used belonged to Whittington, who astonishingly had registered under his own name in a Beirut hotel. His arrest led to the arrest of everyone else involved.
Yep, it was massive bungle piled upon gross ineptitude. But the ‘mistakes and failings’ narrative evades the truth, too. It is another attempt to mystify what is not mysterious, because it replaces a moral evaluation of the events with a technical one.
“Whatever 60 Minutes might say in their defence now, it is almost inconceivable that they would have acted as they did in Australia or any other Western country.”
There have been attempts by some in the media to mount a moral justification of 60 Minutes‘ actions. The usual defence is that at least they were trying to do the right thing, by helping a mother who would not have been denied custody in Australia.
But that opens another, distinctly slimy, can of worms. Do we think 60 Minutes would have funded a child abduction in Australia, however much the parent they were purporting to help might seem to have been denied custody unfairly?
Almost certainly not. But it’s different, of course, if the children have been taken to another country, especially a Muslim country with religious courts, the very mention of which can be guaranteed to raise the hackles of 60 Minutes viewers.
Whatever 60 Minutes might say in their defence now, it is almost inconceivable that they would have acted as they did in Australia or any other Western country.
What will be the ultimate consequence of their actions? It is not clear, although Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that the $500,000 payment to Ali Elamine could be investigated by the corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Exchange Commission (ASIC): ‘Nobody is above the law, and if you break the law in other parts of the world you may well be breaking Australian law as well.’
Maybe. ASIC might investigate, and Nine might even be prosecuted. But I’m betting that if this saga deters news organisations from following 60 Minutes‘ example, it will only be because shareholders and corporate boards don’t want to pay the cost.
The gap between principle and practice in journalism won’t close anytime soon.
Ray Cassin is former Age journalist and a longstanding contributor to Eureka Street. This article was first published by Eureka Street on 26 April 2016.