Ethical cloud hangs over freed 60 Minutes Australia crew

The 60 Minutes crew and Sally Faulkner embrace after their release from a Lebanese prison Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The 60 Minutes crew and Sally Faulkner embrace after their release from a Lebanese prison

It had all the ingredients for an Australian tabloid TV sensation: a frantic mother from Brisbane in an audacious attempt to snatch back her children from her estranged husband on the streets of Beirut.

In the cut-throat world of prime-time commercial television where ratings are paramount, a team from Channel Nine's flagship currents affairs show 60 Minutes must have felt they had a child custody blockbuster that would leave its rivals far behind.

But the high-risk assignment in the Middle East quickly went badly wrong.

Sally Faulkner, the mother, was arrested along with the the Nine crew, including star reporter Tara Brown, shortly after Lahela, age six, and Noah, four, were grabbed from their grandmother in Beirut. They spent a grim fortnight in a Lebanese prison until a deal on Wednesday set them free. Child Abduction Recovery Network chief Adam Whittington and fellow Briton Craig Michael, however, remain behind bars.

As they head home the Australian journalists and their bosses have awkward questions to answer.

Did they pay Mr Whittington's agency to carry out the botched operation, and was ransom forwarded to Ms Faulkner's husband in return for her freedom and that of the Nine reporting team?

Read more: Lebanon releases Australian TV crew held in kidnapping case

Bend it, don't break it

The network is facing an avalanche of criticism, and some careers might not survive the onslaught and an internal review at one of Australia's leading TV stations.

"It is important to reiterate that at no stage did anyone from Nine or 60 Minutes intend to act in any way that made them susceptible to charges that they breached the law or to become part of the story that is Sally's story," Channel Nine's chief executive Hugh Marks told local media.

"But we did become part of the story and we shouldn't have."

Image copyright Lebanese TV
Image caption CCTV footage broadcast by Lebanese TV showed the children being bundled into a car

Mistakes were clearly made and Frank Thorne, a 40-year veteran of the ruthless British tabloids, is critical of 60 Minutes' approach to the story in Lebanon.

"You've got to be extremely careful with chequebook journalism," he told the BBC. "We used to bend the rules, we used to bend the law, if you like, but we would not break the law."

"There were legal guidelines and we had to stick to them and clearly Channel Nine committed acts that were illegal or were complicit in acts that were illegal. You can't as journalists condone kidnapping children off the streets no matter what the circumstances.

"I think heads will roll and the Channel Nine crew and Tara Brown can think themselves very, very fortunate that they are not looking at a jail cell in Lebanon for the next few years," added the Sydney-based reporter.

Long-term damage

There is scant sympathy for the news team on social media, where there has been a hum of opprobrium.

"How fortunate for the #60Minutes crew that the Lebanese legal system allows them to buy their way out of trouble" said one contributor on Twitter.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The publicity around the case could prove career-killing for some of those involved

"I hope the #60Mins journos have learned a valuable lesson about allowing their egos to cross the line without their brains in check," added another.

Star journalists at Channel Nine strongly voiced their support for the 60 Minutes crew, but some media heavyweights from other outlets have been sharply critical of the high-risk story.

"The media have got no role in determining who should have custody of the children whether it be a father or a mother," broadcaster Alan Jones told his listeners on Sydney radio station 2GB.

"[The children were] snatched by a child recovery team as they were walking with their grandmother. Just imagine this happening in Australia."

After the ordeal its crew and Ms Faulkner have faced, Channel Nine will most likely savour ratings gold when their story is told, but academics warn it could be a pyrrhic victory.

"It will be a ratings bonanza [but] it's what we call the dead cat bounce," explained John Harrison, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Queensland.

"Yes, they'll get one or two good hits but the damage to their credibility in the long term and the damage that they've done to the sort of journalism they do is long term and potentially fatal."

"They put the story ahead of any considerations of ethics. I don't think they thought it through partly because they've been able to get away these sorts of practices for so long," he told the BBC news website.

Mr Harrison believes that the risks taken by the 60 Minutes team are a sign of the desperation within traditional TV networks.

"These are the death throes of free-to-air commercial television in its unending search for ratings. Free-to-air television has been undermined by all forms of new media and I think it has a very limited future. News and live sport are the only things it has got left and it has to actually keep its ratings up in those areas in order to remain viable."

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