Now a media ethics expert at University of Melbourne, Dr Denis Muller said allegedly paying a “child recovery” agency to kidnap children and sending reporters to cover it was “cowboy journalism”.
High-profile Channel 9 reporter Tara Brown is behind bars in Lebanon with three other members of the 60 Minutes crew and mother Sally Faulkner.
They are on trial after a failed attempt to retrieve Ms Faulkner’s children, who were taken to Lebanon by their father last year and not returned to Australia.
It has been alleged Channel 9 paid $115,000 to a “child recovery” agency, with Lebanese authorities saying they have evidence.
Dr Muller, who worked as a journalist for 27 years and was an associate editor at The Age, said Channel 9 crossed the line.
“I never would have done the story,” he said.
“Of course there’s the risk of that costing you your job, they probably would have said you’re refusing duty and if you refuse duty in a newsroom you’re putting yourself on the line.
“The key underlying question is the internal culture, if you’re working in a culture that encourages and permits cowboy journalism, it’s very difficult to stand up against it.”
Dr Muller said Channel 9 could have approached the story in a way that did not put the crew in danger.
“I wouldn’t have paid the money for a start,” he said.
“If Ms Faulkner came to me and said she was going to try and get her children back I would have said ‘all right, we might send a reporter and photographer with you but we are not participants in this and if you get into trouble, you get into trouble and we’ll report what happens, thanks for the tip-off’.”
Dr Muller believes Channel 9 did the story because they thought it would “rate its socks off”.
“An Australian mum was rescuing children, bringing them back to a great life in Australia, that’s what it was all about,” he said.
“I can’t imagine Channel 9 looked into the risk and can’t imagine they would have knowingly put their staff at risk like this.
“It’s like a fourth-grade football team suddenly playing in first-grade, they were way out of their depth.”
Lebanese authorities believe they have proof Channel 9 paid the “child recovery” agency and Dr Muller said the crew would most likely be in the clear if they just followed Ms Faulkner
and didn’t directly get involved.
He believes Brown, cameraman Ben Williamson, sound recordist David “Tangles” Ballment and producer Stephen Rice, are now taking the fall.
“There’s a lot of questions for Channel 9 to answer about this,” Dr Muller said.
“While it’s true the reporter and cameraman and the rest of the crew are grown up and can make up their own minds, the fact is they’ve been assigned to this story by superiors.
“They’re (the crew) are in the slammer and the people who sent them are all in Sydney. They did a lot of stupid things and scapegoated to some extent.”
Dr Muller said the TV network was dodging the question on whether they paid the money or not.
“They say they didn’t pay the recovery team directly, but of course that leaves open the question of whether they paid them indirectly,” he said.
“What’s come out so far in the court proceedings, and what Ms Faulkner’s lawyer has said, it appears that Channel 9 paid a sum of money to Ms Faulkner at the beginning of the operation and she used that money to pay the so-called child recovery team, a fancy name for kidnappers.
“The defence might say they are reporters just doing their job but that’s nonsense — it looks as though they paid Ms Faulkner, knowing she would use that money to pay for the recovery operation and they would be privy to the operation and there to film it, otherwise what were they doing? You don’t go to Beirut on the off chance a story might happen.
“There seems to be a degree of complicity in this.”
Dr Muller said getting involved in a family law dispute was risky and raised a number of ethical problems.
“Firstly, why would they think it was their right to insert themselves in a private matter?” he said.
“Secondly, why did they prioritise the mother’s interest in this? As a matter of law and principle, in all family law matters it’s the interest of the children that’s meant to take priority.”
Dr Muller said it would be hard to predict what would happen now, and said it all hinged on whether or not Ms Faulkner could make a deal with her estranged husband, Ali el-Amien, who could then drop the charges.
“If that happens, one might assume the Channel 9 crew are off the hook but this rests in the hands of Ms Faulkner and her lawyer and her estranged husband and his lawyer,” he said.
“If they can’t reach a deal, it’s in the hands of the Lebanese court.”