One of the best pieces of advice I received in 40 years of involvement in foreign television news was ‘Think it right through’. I was arguing with a colleague on a telex machine about a certain story. I was keen for it. He was cautious, hence his advice. He was right. The story was in Beirut during the civil war. It brings the memory back to the wash-up of the 60 Minutes debacle in the Lebanese capital. Channel 9 appeared to have paid no attention to the potential consequences of such a sensitive assignment in a city not known for its rule of law as we know it.
Gerald Stone, the founding executive producer of 60 Minutes 37 years ago and a member of the internal inquiry panel, agrees. ‘There were ways to do it that could have reduced those risks’, he said. ‘But to try to cover a parental kidnapping in one of the most heavily guarded cities.. capitals.. in the world. I just thought was a bridge too far. And it’s amazing to me that a program that bases itself on asking the right questions, didn’t ask itself the right questions’.
The result was that the assignment’s producer, Stephen Rice, was forced to walk the plank and his three colleagues were formally warned. It is understandable for Stone to feel amazed. I am also by other aspects.
I am amazed that Tara Brown can still look at herself in the mirror of the make-up room at Channel 9 when she was the ‘face’ of the gangland-type farce which more than anything else has tarnished both the program’s reputation and her own.
I am amazed that a mother with two children like Ms Brown could be even a party in the first place to having hooded strangers grab two little children off the streets of a foreign city with every possibility of traumatising them.
I am amazed that a reporter like Ms Brown is not as culpable as the producer. Has she no self-respect as a reporter? Does she hand over all responsibility to her producer for stories she theoretically reports? Does she feel no accountability for stories which viewers believe she is actually reporting? Or is her role really quite deceptive and she is little more than the producer’s performer?
I am amazed that Channel 9 and presumably Ms Brown as well as her producer thought they could act with impunity in a foreign country and get away with it. It reeks of the actions of the worst kind of white man’s media mentality riding roughshod over local laws in a Third World country. ‘I just thought they would treat us as journalists just doing our job’, said a bewildered Ms Brown on her return to Sydney.
I am amazed that an assignment as sensitive and questionable as this in a city dominated by the fearsome Hezbollah militia was allowed to proceed without any check on the legalities, never mind formal approval for Channel 9’s sizeable financial contribution to the child-snatchers.
I am amazed at what seems like a lack of careful planning for any eventuality. If earlier media reports were correct, the boat intended to carry the participants to Cyprus did not have room for all of them.
I am amazed that Channel 9, having been put on the back foot like never before by the reaction to the discredited antics of the 60 Minutes team, thought it could placate the public with an internal inquiry led by two former executive producers of its own with ‘form’ of running programs featuring the worst excesses of tabloid journalism. And just to make sure, they would be assisted by not an independent lawyer, but an in-house one. On the surface, it seemed so cosy. But, in fairness, their report was anything but the whitewash it could have been.
I am amazed that Gerald Stone thought it unfair that a member of the 60 Minutes team, the producer, should be shown the door despite the fact his actions had cost his struggling network a lot of money with possibly more to come and made a laughing stock of 60 Minutes, a program once synonymous with rivers of gold ratings and advertising revenue on such a scale that it became a law unto itself.
But I am not amazed that a company like Channel 9 in a country which revels in its reputation for mateship abandoned those who joined its staff in the trenches as if they had no connection. Indeed these hapless participants did not rate even a mention in the internal report, according to the ABC. Their leader said they were made ‘scapegoats’. It is an unfortunate matter these days that companies waste no time in heading for the hills when something smelly or immoral is associated with them.
For decades, Channel 9 ruled the Australian television roost with its foresight, audacious ideas, bold programming, competitive-at-any-cost reporters, skullduggery when necessary, arrogance and thinking which outsmarted all its rivals. Its news executives were champion operators, but they lived in fear of a snarling phone call from Kerry Packer when stories were missed or not as good as the opposition’s. ‘Still the one’, was Channel 9’s motto. It liked to portray itself as a ‘family’ serving Australian families. Perhaps it still does when you consider the fluffy column Tracy Grimshaw, host of a Current Affair, wrote for The Australian when her colleagues were arrested. Even a magazine you find at the supermarket checkout might have gagged at it. How awful it must be for these colleagues of hers being locked up in a foreign jail and causing such anxiety for their families at home. Did it never occur to Ms Grimshaw that this is what happens when people are arrested for a criminal offence?
It is no wonder that some sections of the Australian media have enjoyed sinking their boots into the once mighty Channel 9. But it remains a slick operation by commercial television standards. Like the other channels, its audience is in decline and the boom times heyday of 60 Minutes is a fading memory. Tara Brown should consider herself fortunate, perhaps even with a guilty conscience, that she still has a job there. It seems that her program for the first time in years will now have to be beholden to Channel 9 management. That will be no bad thing for the sake of its staff and the network’s fortunes.
FOOTNOTE. Eleven years ago, Shane Warne, a member of Channel 9’s cricket commentary team, became regular fodder in the daily gossip machine when his marriage collapsed and he was reported to have had sexual frolics with three women in England. This proved too much for the network’s family image and he was, in effect, sacked when his contract was not renewed. There was no formal review. It was not a matter which was allowed to drift. A decision was made without further ado. Kerry Packer would have been appalled at not only what happened in Beirut and the reasons it did, but that the fallout was allowed to fester and Channel 9’s reputation and revenue potential harmed with every passing week.
John Tulloh has had a 40 year career in foreign news, particularly with the ABC.