60 Minutes producer sacked over botched Beirut snatch

60 Minutes reporter Tara Brown leaving the court in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez/ Getty Images.

Channel 9 has sacked the 60 Minutes the producer responsible for the disastrous Beirut child recovery story.

Stephen Rice was dismissed despite an independent review saying no-one should lose their job.

Rice was among those detained by authorities in Beirut.

The TV show’s four-member crew, including journalist Tara Brown, were arrested, along with Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner and the team who grabbed who children off a city street in Lebanon.

Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI) boss Adam Whittington and colleague Craig Michael are still in a prison in Beirut following their arrest on April 7 after grabbing the two children off the street, an incident filmed by 60 Minutes.

The review by Australian 60 Minutes founder Gerald Stone, former producer and senior Nine executive David Hurley and Nine’s general counsel Rachel Launders, concluded that “approval, planning and implementation of the story shows a number of points at which there was a lack of process within Nine, a lack of judgement or an error of judgment, each of which may have contributed to the outcome which occurred”.

There was also a “failure to adhere to Nine’s usual procedures relating to consideration of security risks, safety assessments and approval of contractual arrangements”.

Here are two key extracts from the report:

The high level of autonomy given to producers, and the reluctance of team members to voice concerns indicates a culture which supports risk taking, without appropriate checks and balances to identify excessive levels of risk …

If Nine’s usual procedures had been adhered to, the errors of judgement may have been identified earlier, with the result that the story would not have been undertaken at all, or at least not in the way in which it was implemented. For example, it could have been executed with the 60 Minutes crew maintaining a more appropriate distance from the events occurring in Beirut. This would have protected the crew from the risk of imprisonment in Beirut and may also have lessened the impact on Nine’s reputation, although that is still tarnished by Nine paying CARI directly, knowing the nature of CARI’s operations.

The other staff involved in the story’s planning have received formal warnings, Nine said in a statement.

Nine CEO Hugh Marks confirmed the show had paid the child recovery agency involved.

Nine “got too close to the story and suffered damaging consequences,” he said.

“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.

Gerald Stone called the incident “the gravest misadventure” in the program’s history.

“It’s clear from 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,” he said.

Rice’s dismissal was not welcomed by colleagues at rival stations:

ABC business reporter Peter Ryan said the double Walkley award winner was “a top operator and widely respected for many years” and had been “thrown under a bus” by Nine.

Channel Nine’s instagram post of Tara Brown, beside Stephen Rice and the 60 Minutes team following their release. Source: Channel 9/Instagram

Here in Nine Entertainment Co’s full statement.

Nine Entertainment Co today released the key findings of an independent review into the circumstances surrounding the 60 Minutes story about Australian woman, Ms Sally Faulkner, which resulted in the 60 Minutes crew being arrested in Beirut.

The independent review was conducted by the founder and former producer of 60 Minutes, Gerald Stone, former producer and senior executive at Nine, David Hurley, and the company’s general counsel, Rachel Launders.

Gerald Stone said today: “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 from 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.

Nine CEO Hugh Marks said: “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.

“Amongst 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.”

“As a result of the review, we are expanding and upgrading our processes related to story selection and approval, how we approve contracts and payments and the way we conduct risk assessments. We have an obligation to our staff, our shareholders and our viewers to operate in ways that enhance our reputation as a leading producer of news and current affairs,” Marks said.

“We also accept a broader obligation to get our judgement calls right regarding what stories we pursue, and how we pursue them. Implementation of the recommendations of the review will assist us in making the right choices in the future,” Marks said

“More than two children a week are believed to be taken from Australia as part of custody disputes. It is an important issue that 60 Minutes was attempting to bring to wider public attention and we hope that the actions of our crew have not in any way diminished the importance of the issue,” Mr Marks said.

“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.

Stephen Rice, the producer of the Sally Faulkner story, will be leaving the company effective immediately. Other staff involved in the planning and execution of this story have received formal warnings. The crew continue to receive counselling related to the events in Lebanon and the other team members will return to work soon.

Chairman of NEC, Peter Costello said after consideration of the Report, its recommendations and the 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.

Peter Costello said: “It is the determination of the Board to build a robust system of checks and balances to guard against such events occurring in the future. Our talented people are the most valuable resource of the company and their safety is our priority”

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