A TV crew’s botched child recovery bid has left a trail of damaged reputations and questions of how far is too far in journalism. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

60 Minutes crew released in Beirut

A policeman escorts journalist Tara Brown (left) and Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner after  their release from a Lebanese prison this week.
A policeman escorts journalist Tara Brown (left) and Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner after their release from a Lebanese prison this week.

It began in the shadows, and it was resolved the same way. Envelopes and backroom discussions. Chequebook journalism had become chequebook justice, and so, two weeks after their arrest, the 60 Minutes crew were freed from their squalid cells and returned to Sydney – not as heroes, but cautionary figures. I spoke with a former colleague of the news crew – an ex-producer of current affairs for Channel Nine – before their release. He was in a difficult position, caught between personal loyalty and a fear of jeopardising the crew’s safety with incautious remarks on the one hand, and a certain ambivalence about the story on the other. “I think Tara really wanted to help those children,” he tells me. “But, yes, there are considerations of ratings also. It’s commercial television: that consideration will always exist. But that crew – they don’t participate in unethical things. It seems to me that they picked the wrong recovery unit. Whittington [the director of the child recovery team used in the operation] doesn’t impress me. But… I don’t believe in chequebook journalism, and I would’ve argued against this story had it happened in my day. This has been a shambles.”  

Given the opacity of the circumstances of the crew’s release, we may not immediately – or ever – know whether 60 Minutes strove merely to record the foreign kidnapping of a child, or actively conspired in it. Adam Whittington, the British director of Child Abduction Recovery International, remains in his cell and says he has invoices that prove the television show paid him for his services. Proving this elevated complicity will be a matter for the Lebanese courts. Either way, 60 Minutes’ involvement in an international plot of vigilantism is not so surprising.

The impurity of the spectacle was confirmed when it was revealed that Nine executives had approached Mick Gatto and Eddie Obeid – one an underworld figure, the other a disgraced politician – to secure the crew's release. The strange, oleaginous pair were making arrangements to fly to Lebanon. Frontline would have been proud.

If there is a moral throughline of network journalism, it might be a sentimental tribute to and feral defence of “Aussie” values. It is hard to be more specific on these values, given they are guided by the caprice of ratings. Cynically, tabloids reserve equal contempt and admiration for the poor. On law and order, they are ambivalent. The law may either be an officious arse that interferes with common sense, or the golden river that separates the civil from perverts and parasites. The tabloid’s conception of law and compliance is conveniently malleable – something to valiantly uphold, or heroically reject. Ratings will determine which.

Sixteen years ago, as a journalism student, I was introduced to Mike Willesee’s live interview with the children of the Cangai siege and their murderous captors. The interview was central to my media ethics class. In 1993, Leonard Leabeater, Robert Steele and Raymond Bassett – a psychopath and his sickly obedient, intellectually impaired protégés – murdered five people on a very bloody road trip. Police were closing in and, with child hostages and a car full of guns, they holed up in a farmhouse in New South Wales. They were soon surrounded by a tactical response unit.

The trio’s location was known to media, and A Current Affair producers began calling the residence. So, too, were police negotiators. In 1993, there was only one way to reach them – the home’s landline. The producers got lucky and reached Leabeater, but well before Willesee was even in the studio. The child killer agreed to stay on the phone until the ACA host arrived. “I was driving very fast through traffic,” Willesee remembered years later, “and I literally drove my car into the studio, jumped out of my car, went to the desk and started that interview.”

The obvious consequence was that police were getting an engaged signal, while Leabeater was effectively on hold to a news program until its star appeared in the studio. “Journalists discussed aspects of the murders, hostages and firearms not only with Leabeater and Steele, but with the hostage children,” Detective Sergeant Kevin Henderson told the coronial inquest. “The telephone was continually engaged.”

Willesee admits he wasn’t prepared for the interview, but it was an admission of pride rather than contrition – the boast of a star convinced of his gift for impromptu brilliance. The satirical news show Frontline famously parodied the interview, and their fictional anchor Mike Moore, a guileless egomaniac, asks one of the children, “Have you enjoyed this little adventure?” But the caricature missed Willesee’s intelligence.

After 26 hours, the children were released. Leabeater shot himself in the head before police stormed the farmhouse. The network experienced a storm of criticism, and the following night Willesee defended the interview in a sombre piece to camera. “It’s something I really don’t regret,” he said. “I wanted and needed to make sure those children were alive.”

Thirteen years later, Willesee’s sense of rectitude hadn’t waned. In an interview with Andrew Denton in 2006, Willesee said: “All that criticism is theoretical. That I should have got off the phone and let someone else have a go. Now, this guy hated police officers and they wanted police officers on the phone to him. The fact is, I got those kids out. They’re alive today and their parents have thanked me.”

As the former producer tells me: “Willesee believed in it. He was sincere, I think. And it was one of those stories where ratings were through the roof. And they did good stories. It’s easier to talk about now, but at the time I wasn’t terribly impressed. Can journalists go too far? Yes. You can’t be judge and jury.”

The story resonates with the 60 Minutes case. The sense of exceptionalism, the involvement of children, and most notably the aggressive utilitarianism – the view that any means or method is justified if they secure the result. The breaching of law or invention of expertise is permissible given the outcome. Police negotiators can be usurped; errant mercenaries employed. Recklessness becomes heroism given the right result. Academics, broadsheet reporters and other assorted eunuchs might condemn the means, goes this thinking, but they’ll never know glory. They will never know the thrill of releasing children from creeps, nor the validation of red carpets and ratings.

These shows confect sympathy for average “Aussie” values, but it’s doubtful that an average Australian feels empowered to flamboyantly disregard the law. For decades, the bizarre excesses of televised news have been defended as the gritty work of heroes, and criticism dismissed as the bleating of the weak and ineffectual. As these stories have been told in moral black and white, so too the stories about how they have been made. It’s transparently self-serving.

 The power of utility was expressed this week by Ray Martin, who proudly shared his involvement in a very similar operation in Spain in 1980. Again, it was for 60 Minutes. The important difference, apparently, was that it was successful. “In recovering that child, the national laws were such that, had we been caught at the time, we would have broken a national law, so I’m very conscious of what’s happening in Lebanon,” he said.

Again, it begs the question: why do TV journalists feel entitled to break the law, engage mercenaries, work well outside their expertise, dismiss the risk of unforeseen consequences, then defend this excess with the merest appeal to utility? Willesee defended his interview because the children were released; Martin’s defence was the same. Reflection runs no deeper.

This week, Martin’s daughter, Jenna, wrote an impassioned piece in defence of the news crew. “I am very sympathetic to the plight of the crew involved, and of their families,” she wrote, “and I’m offended by the lack of support they have received from members of their own profession – people who frankly should know better ...
“I wonder if the same accusations would have been hurled at Four Corners if it was them, not 60, who found themselves banged up abroad. I don’t remember any cries of cowboy journalism when the Four Corners crew were themselves arrested in Malaysia last month, despite the fact that local laws were breached in that case, too.”
Described as a freelance writer, we can only hope the rest of her portfolio isn’t as blighted with false equivalence. The Four Corners crew were arrested because they dared to inquire about corruption. By any sensible definition, they were doing their job – not creating a story but investigating established graft. They were locked up for asking questions, not for conspiring to kidnap a child. Moreover, the ultimate consequence of their temerity was the embarrassment of an autocratic government – not a possible shootout in the vicinity of children.

Jenna writes about her father as an inspired daredevil, bravely entering distant war zones to convey the Stories That Matter to the folks at home. It is her father, after all. But the clichés of journalistic virtue turn the stomach. Jenna Martin asks us to consider her father’s profession – and my own – as some mythic paragon. The truth is, it is an industry speckled by farce, cynicism and extraordinary vanity. Journalism remains essential, but to take seriously her injunction upon journalists criticising 60 Minutes is to surrender our scepticism and judgement. None of us, ever, should live above the standards of scrutiny we apply to others.

Photos emerged of the reunited crew. They wore large smiles and clutched glasses of beer. They were going home – only 24 hours before, none of them were sure if they’d ever be released. “Half an hour ago we were sitting in a very, very small cell,” the crew’s producer told a reporter from Channel Nine. “This has just come completely out of the blue.”

The relief was evident. But it is a shambolic, faintly sordid tale. 60 Minutes has lost credibility and a large sum of cash; the children’s mother has reportedly lost custody of her children. Except for the recipients of secret payments, there are no winners here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2016 as "Shifty minutes".

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