This is the second part of a series. Read part one here.
The jailing of a 60 Minutes crew over a botched child abduction attempt in Beirut in 2016 was a public relations nightmare for Nine, which swung into crisis management 101 to save its leading current affairs program.
But five years on from the saga, 60 Minutes cameraman Ben Williamson, who was tortured in Beirut, lives in the grip of a debilitating case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Williamson feels a corrosive sense of shame for what happened in Beirut, judged at the time by 60 Minutes‘ founding executive producer, the late Gerald Stone, to be the “greatest misadventure” in the program’s history.
Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey
Choose what you pay, from $99.
Williamson’s wife, Cara, says Nine’s conduct since shows that loyalty “means nothing”.
“I don’t think you understand the impact of PTSD until you go through it,” she said. “The battle for us is still there. Ben will not recover until they say [they’re] sorry for what [he’s] been through.”
Containing the damage
As Williamson and the 60 Minutes crew left Beirut after being held for two weeks on kidnapping charges, Nine stepped up its damage containment strategy.
Then-chief executive Hugh Marks set up a review to find out “why our systems, designed to protect staff, failed to do so”. Marks’ words implied a generosity of spirit towards the frontline staff who had been jailed in Beirut. He wanted to ensure that “none of our colleagues are put in a similar position in the future”.
The message from the top was that Nine was a responsible employer, that it put its staff first, and that it would own the problem. It sent a positive signal to sponsors and advertisers leery about being linked to a program apparently prepared to break international laws and pay to have children snatched from the arms of their grandmother in a foreign country.
Behind the scenes another version of the company’s Beirut response was evolving.
Marks’ review, styled as independent, was run by current and former Nine insiders led by Stone and including another tabloid veteran and a company lawyer. It was under way as Williamson and the rest of the crew returned to Sydney.
Mentally and emotionally on the edge, Williamson recalls he downed two bottles of whisky on the flight home. “I think I knew even then that I was in serious trouble,” he told Inq.
The crew were all interviewed within days. For Williamson it went by in a blur.
The day the review was released Nine sacked story producer and network veteran Stephen Rice — against Stone’s insistence that no one should be singled out for attempting to get the kind of edgy, emotion-charged story 60 Minutes had pursued for decades.
Inq understands Rice signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of the termination package. Confidentiality agreements have been widely used to protect the church’s reputation in sex abuse cases. In Nine’s case it has ensured that Rice will never be able to publicly reveal what went wrong inside the network. That narrative would be controlled by Nine.
In an early sign of the blame-shifting that was under way, the review concluded that Williamson and other crew had failed to ask several “critically relevant” questions about the assignment.
So much for the problem lying with the system. Now it also lay with individuals such as Williamson, who had prospered at Nine because he was keen to take on any job thrown his way.
“I had an image of myself as being fearless and able to handle any situation,” Williamson said. He had been asked to break the laws of other countries on previous 60 Minutes assignments, including in China.
Drawing a line
The review drew a line under the Beirut saga. It put the network in control of the information flow. It turned the narrative to one of repentance. The horrors that the crew endured were never spoken of publicly, including by Williamson.
Cara remembers the role she says Nine made her play in spinning the Beirut story the company’s way while her husband was still captive in Beirut. The logic was that as long as Williamson was in the hands of Lebanon’s police it would be dangerous to raise questions publicly about Nine’s role in organising the abduction attempt.
Behind the scenes though, at a meeting arranged in Nine’s boardroom for the partners of the crew, Cara recalls the fury directed at Marks when details emerged of the botched Beirut operation. (Fairfax later published a receipt showing that Nine had paid $115,000 to a child abduction company.)
“‘Are we in the business of kidnapping children now? Is that what we do now?'” Cara recalls the meeting being asked. “‘What lengths will you go to to get ratings?’ They’re the questions we wanted answers to.”
Not known publicly at the time was that the 60 Minutes crew had entered Lebanon posing as tourists — another crime to add to the growing rap sheet of deceptions.
With Nine’s internal review done, Williamson’s anxieties only increased. He was having trouble getting his contract renewed. He became aware that his senior managers were claiming they had no idea that Williamson would be so close to the action in Beirut.
As the frustration built Williamson arranged to meet Marks to set the record straight.
“I just wanted to know that I still had a job, to be able to pay the bills for the family,” Williamson told Inq.
Meanwhile Cara detected a change in her husband. At a night out at a concert she noticed he couldn’t sit still. “He said to me: ‘I can’t deal with this,’ and when he said that I thought: ‘You are not OK’.”
Within months of the Beirut nightmare — and with some inconsistent attempts to make it to counselling funded by the network — Williamson was sent back on the road, this time for stories in the US.
Here, months after Beirut, the Williamsons’ world fell apart. After taking a combination of alcohol and sleeping tablets he was picked up by police inside his LA hotel. When he got back to Sydney he collapsed at home in front of his family, off his head with booze and overpowered by emotion.
Conflict and death
Williamson had a career covering conflict and death for Nine. Before Beirut he had faced extreme threats in Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine, often at the wrong end of a gun. He had shot stories on the mass shooting in Sandy Hook in the United States and the Ebola outbreak in Africa, where he watched young people dying daily.
The year before Beirut he had entered China — again on a tourist visa — and worked with hidden cameras to film meetings with high-level drug traffickers. The job was risky and nerve-racking and Williamson was frightened by the prospect of being caught in possession of the film he had shot.
“There was never any counselling offered [prior to the Beirut experience],” he said. “It was expected that you would just keep going.”
Williamson kept working after Beirut, frequently not meeting the counselling sessions which had been scheduled. It all came to a halt when the trauma caught up with him almost two years ago.
“I wasn’t coping. Wasn’t sleeping. I was having flashbacks on the road,” he told Inq. “I was hyperventilating, having panic attacks. I ended up lying in a ball on the floor of the shower at home back in Sydney. I knew I couldn’t go back.”
The decision of Nine’s insurers, GIO, to fight his claim for work injury compensation has left the family embittered against the network.
“It’s the aftermath you have to think about,” Cara said. “It doesn’t stop when the attention’s over.
“Nine should take responsibility. They think as long as they’ve got the ratings it’s OK. But they have to change the company policy of sending people off to war zones or into dangerous countries on tourist visas. They need to understand their staff are frontline people and they need to have psychological services for them.”
Nine said in a statement yesterday that questions of compensation lay with its insurer and that it had taken steps to increase support for staff traumatised through their work.
Tomorrow: why doesn’t Nine stop the legal games and compensate Ben Williamson direct?