The Nine Entertainment Company will request its insurers expedite the compensation claim of 60 Minutes cameraman Ben Williamson who revealed to Inq this week his torture at the hands of Lebanese security services five years ago after he was arrested over a botched abduction attempt in Beirut.
In a statement to Inq Nine said it “takes the welfare of our employees seriously” and that it recognised “the importance of a speedy resolution” to Williamson’s workplace compensation claim.
“With this in mind, we have engaged with [insurance companies] AON and GIO to request that the timing of attempts to resolve this matter be expedited, as much as possible, in the interests of Ben’s well-being. Throughout this process we will continue to offer support and assistance to Ben and his family.”
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Williamson says that is “good to hear” after months of stonewalling and denial.
But he added: “It’s frustrating that it had to come to this, with me publicly telling what really happened in Beirut in order to get this action.”
‘No case of negligence’
As Inq reported, Nine’s insurer, GIO, had earlier this year informed Williamson that Nine had no case of negligence to answer for what happened to him in the line of duty in Beirut. Indeed, GIO turned the tables on Williamson and alleged that he was to blame, demanded more details, and delayed its responses.
Its position was a clear sign that Williamson had a battle on his hands — possibly ending in the NSW District Court — to be properly compensated. It raised the question of who really calls the shots — Nine or its insurers — when an employee suffers a life-changing ordeal while on company business.
Nine is legally correct when it says compensation is handled by its insurer. GIO, for its part, has adopted a standard legal approach to a claim.
The game of legal handball worked for the company and the insurer, but was a further drain on Williamson who, just yesterday, had to undergo yet another “independent assessment”.
But lost in the lawyer-driven process is the human gesture of apologising and making good on what Williamson is owed.
Dean Yates, a former Reuters journalist who has pioneered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) programs at the international news service, has seen this movie before. He also went through insurance hell as a result of his PTSD.
“I’ve spoken to journalists who’ve been betrayed like this,” he says. “It’s important to understand that when you put your life on the line for an organisation — whether you’re a journo, a copper, a soldier — you expect that organisation to look after you if you get sick.
“When that doesn’t happen, the betrayal is beyond comprehension. Deep and lasting. For some, it’s worse than the original trauma itself. It’s what is known as a moral injury. Problem is, you can’t take medication for betrayal.”
By suing Nine and ending up dealing with GIO (whose parent company is Suncorp) Williamson has taken on the might of two companies with a market capitalisation of $19 billion ($5 billion and $13.9 billion respectively). It’s the kind of wealth that buys a lot of legal firepower.
‘System is absurd’
Williamson’s solicitor, Kristian Bolwell of WorkLawyers, says his client’s case showed the absurdity of the system “in stark detail”.
“After going to work to deliver ratings for Channel Nine’s news and flagship current affairs show 60 Minutes for two decades, to be shot at, tortured and being too up close and personal with a rolling horror show from the aftermath of bombings, bushfires, shootings, car and jet plane crashes and so many dead people that can’t be counted, his employer denies liability for the inevitable PTSD that Ben now suffers,” Bolwell said.
Bolwell says the workers compensation system frequently leaves injured people in a perilous financial state, with injured workers waiting “in the endless queue, while fearing for their livelihoods and suffering additional stress and anxiety because of it”.
“Channel Nine should accept its moral obligation for all the ratings Ben’s work delivered by doing what’s right a long time ago to allow Ben to provide for himself and his family,” he said.
Yates said: “Any contractual obligations Nine might cite to its insurer as a reason not to help Williamson are nonsense.
“Nine loves to break stories and tread on toes. How many Walkleys has Nine won for making governments and organisations squirm? How many royal commissions have resulted from its stories? If Nine wants the insurer to back off and do the right thing someone just has to pick up the phone.”
Times have changed at Nine
Nine is not the swashbuckling place it once was when star current affairs reporters ruled the roost. In its heyday the network resembled a local version of Hollywood with then-CEO Sam Chisholm at the helm. Long gone too is the era of the powerful proprietor — in Nine’s case Kerry Packer — who might once have seen to it that loyal staff were looked after.
The Nine Entertainment Company is now owned by a collection of primarily US-based investment funds, making up 25% of the shareholding. Its largest single shareholder is the owner of WIN regional television network, Bruce Gordon, who owns 15% but does not have a seat on the board. The constant cutting and reorganising to maximise profit in the face of shrinking audiences and advertising has put a new class of managers in charge. Accountants and human resources managers are the new rulers.
Williamson’s ordeal might have been handled differently at a different time.
At its core his and his wife’s wish list is simple: that Nine should accept responsibility, accept that he was tortured, heal the wounds and help him secure a decent future for his family.
As it is, Nine has flexed the power it might — or might not — legally have to influence its insurer.
“Let’s be honest,” Williamson said. “This has only come about because of pressure. In the meantime what about all those others who don’t have the access to the media that I am lucky enough to have to say what’s really going on. Let’s see what happens now.”
Update: In a statement sent to Inq, GIO said it had “already expedited Mr Williamson’s claim and is committed to supporting him through this process and settling as soon as possible”.