Stephen Rice, the producer behind the botched 60 Minutes saga that saw a mother, four Nine employees and members of a child recovery agency jailed, has exited the network, effective immediately. Other members of the staff involved have received formal warnings.
The news comes after Nine launched a full investigation into what went wrong with independent reviewers. The reviewers were founder of 60 Minutes Gerald Stone, former producer and senior Nine exec David Hurley, and the company’s general counsel Rachel Launders.
Rice (second from left above) lost his job, despite the review recommending no one singled out for dismissal. However, it did say management should ensure strong disapproval at those involved.
In early April this year 60 Minutes flew over to Lebanon’s capital Beirut to film an attempted child recovery operation. Sally Faulkner, the mother, had alleged her husband had taken their two children on holiday to Lebanon and had not returned them to Australia. Faulkner and the Nine crew – journalist Tara Brown, producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Ben Williamson and sound recordist David Ballment – were detained by Lebanon authorities and held in Beirut on kidnapping charges. The charges were dropped in late April and the team flown back to Australia.
One Friday afternoon Nine released a five page report on the key findings of the independent review, claiming there were “inexcusable errors”.
“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,” said 60 Minutes founder Gerald Stone.
“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.
CEO Hugh Marks added the execution of the story was at odds with the company’s ordinary approval process.
“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,” he added. “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.”
Marks said Nine would be expanding and upgrading its story selection and approval process. Marks’ full statement is at the bottom of this article.
The manner of payment from Nine to the child recovery agency garnered much scrutiny too. The findings said the payment of stories is not ideal but unavoidable in today’s world. However the report defended this action saying there was little difference in paying the agency or Faulkner as it was all going to the same thing.
A number of questions were raised within the report around Nine’s obligation to the story and if the consequences were properly weighed.
And while acknowledging Faulkner’s plight deserved coverage, the reviewers said the story could have been done in a way that did not put anyone in danger.
Subsequently, there was a lack of process and numerous errors of judgement throughout the whole scandal.
One particular point raised was the high level of autonomy given to 60 Minutes producers, meaning the producers felt no need to consult the higher up news team about the story.
“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,” the report stated.
After consideration of the report, Nine Entertainment Co. CEO Peter Costello said a more rigorous risk management system is being installed.
“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,” he said. “Our talented people are the most valuable resource of the company and their safety is our priority.”
Hugh Marks’ full statement
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”