Exclusive: Why Ex 60 Minutes Boss Gerald Stone Knows What Its Like To Be Locked Up
COMMENT: The hunger to create compelling content has landed 60 Minutes in serious trouble, and the Nine Network ducking for cover over the botched Beirut snatch of a child that led to a Sixty Minutes crew being jailed along with staff from a professional security Company.
A subsequent internal inquiry that included Gerald Stone the former Executive Producer of Sixty Minutes show has been described by some observers as being less than impartial especially as there is evidence that money was paid to a security group by the Nine Network.
Gerald Stone is a person who has firsthand experience of being detained in a foreign Country.
I know because I was the one who the Nine Network called on to get him released from detention in Uganda in the late 1970’s.
And like the botched Beirut child snatch, Stones actions were in my opinion equally as reckless especially as he was detained by one of world’s worst dictators at the time and in a Country that was extremely unstable.
While the Sixty Minutes crew were freed after the Nine Network was forced to pay their way out of trouble, it has also led to Stephen Rice being sacked and questions being asked about the independence of the investigation into the snatch that went so terribly wrong.
The review of the editorial approval and actions of the crew involved in the story was carried out by Gerald Stone; David Hurley, the former communications adviser to Nine’s former CEO, David Gyngell; and Nine’s general counsel Rachel Launders all former or existing employees of the Nine Network.
Back in the 70’s A Current Affair was a huge success, then it started to wane, despite having higher ratings than the current ACA show.
At the time I had just won ACA a Logie for the Most Outstanding Contribution to TV Journalism. It for a story called The Werribee Affair.
It was all about corruption politician’s questionable actions by the Victorian Police force, a bent lawyer and an MP’s son who got off with a $10 fine after killing someone driving on the wrong side of the road.
We then went on the hunt for our next big exclusive.
This was the same period when the sporting world was rocked by Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket announcement.
At the time ACA was under the management of Executive Producer Michael Shildberger who also anchored the show nightly, Shildberger was no fan of Stone and Vice Versa.
Stone at the time was working from a back room at TCN Nine in Sydney.
He and Shildberger had fought it out for the role of Executive Producer of the show, Shildberger was the chosen one.
Stone on the other hand had a brief to produce new show ideas or documentaries that would get ratings.
The big story idea we had, was to get an interview with Idi Amin, the ruler of Uganda who I had met through a man called Robert “Bob” Astles, a British soldier and colonial officer, who lived in Uganda and had become an associate of presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin.
We got the interview, then Stone tried to steal it for himself, in an effort to make a name for himself in the eyes of Nine management in Sydney.
I first met Amin and Astles during my time working in Fleet Street as a foreign correspondent and during visits to Uganda to cover the infighting that was going on in the Country I had cultivated Astles as a contact because he had an in with some of the most feared leaders in the world.
Back in the early 70’s Uganda and the actions of Amin the then leader of Uganda was big news.
Amin like Libya’s Gadhafi, was involved in human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, and gross economic mismanagement.
The number of people killed as a result of his regime is estimated by international observers and human rights groups to range from 100,000 to 500,000.
During his years in power, Amin shifted in allegiance from being a pro-Western ruler enjoying considerable Israeli support to being backed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, as well as the Soviet Union, and East Germany.
After months of chasing Astles I finally got the green light to go into the Country with a Nine crew and Michael Shildberger from Melbourne.
A few days later I was working at my desk at GTV Nine in Melbourne when I got a telephone call. It was late in the afternoon and shortly before the show which by this stage was rumoured to be axed, was set to go to air.
At first I thought it was another ACA college imitating Amin.
I was just about to hang up the phone when in walked the College.
The call was Amin.
What Amin wanted was to be put through to Kerry Packer, who had just announced World Series Cricket. Amin who had trained in the British Military was a hard core cricket fan.
What eventuated after Amin spoke to Packer, was that Amin wanted to bring a Uganda Cricket Team to the MCG to play Australia.
He would captain one team and he wanted the other “big man” Kerry Packer to captain the Australian cricket team. The concept never happened because politically it was not feasible.
Privately Kerry Packer reckoned he could pack the MCG to the rafters and get global publicity for his World Series Cricket.
Then on Friday the 28th of April 1978 all hell broke loose, Kerry Packer axed A Current Affair.
Over that weekend Shildberger and I decided we would still go to Uganda, we had the contacts, we had done the research and we knew we could sell the story to TV networks around the world.
We were scheduled to fly out to London on the Sunday morning.
Then on the Saturday I received a tip off from a TCN Nine employee that Stone had jumped the gun, stolen the story and jumped on an aeroplane with a TCN Nine crew.
This was going to be his big scoop.
Later that day I called Astles in Uganda and I asked him outright to not deal with Stone.
I told him that I did not know the guy and that I had never worked with him, he was just a name in Sydney and I was working on A Current Affair in Melbourne.
I asked Astles to still let Shildberger and myself into the Country.
He said he would fix it and that we could still come into Uganda.
Then in the early hours of the Monday morning following my conversation with Astles, I got a call from senior TCN Nine management.
I was told that Stone and the crew had been detained at Entebbe airport.
I was told that the Ugandan authorities had detained the Stone and the Nine crew and that they had been thrown into jail and I had to get him out.
Nine management even went as far as seeking an emergency order in the Supreme Court ordering me to get Stone released.
At first I said no as Stone had not only stolen our story idea he had tried to get a commercial advantage through stealth.
As they say all is fair in love and war when it comes to journalism as Stone well knows anything goes.
I eventually relented called Astles and Stone was freed.
He never did get the one on one interview with Amin.
Now Stone is centre stage in another drama, this time as an arbitrator in a botched exercise that saw a Sixty Minutes crew jailed.
Back in the 70’s Michael Shildberger despised Stone, he described him as a “political animal”.
Now Stephen Rice the man who became the sacrificial lamb for the botched raid is looking to sue the Nine Network.
His lawyer has attacked the Nine Network’s “egregious” and “diabolical” dismissal of the 60 Minutes producer, calling Rice a “scapegoat” in light of the child-snatching fiasco according to Fairfax Media.
Leading workplace lawyer John Laxon told Fairfax Media that Nine had failed in their duty of care to Rice as the 58-year-old continues to face criminal charges in the Lebanese legal system for his involvement in April’s failed child recovery operation in Beirut.
Mr Laxon confirmed he and Rice were currently considering a legal course of action.
“What’s happened to Stephen is diabolical from my perspective, in circumstances where a number of very senior people at Nine were involved in the story from the get go,” Mr Laxon told Fairfax Media on Tuesday.
“The former executive producer, the chief-of-staff, the current executive producer, the legal counsel and any number of people at Channel Nine were fully aware of the story and what was proposed before it took place.” He said.
Nine’s 60 Minutes review recommended no individual be sacked over the program’s decision to hire Adam Whittington’s Child Recovery Abduction International firm to try and kidnap the children of Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner from Beirut, where they live with their father who refuses to send them back to Australia.
“Stephen Rice is 58. He’s worked for Channel Nine for 28-odd years and this story that names him as the person responsible has now gone around the world.
Stone has not commented for this story nor did he contact before leaving for Uganda or when he returned.
He does however describe my actions as “unethical journalism” in that I went out of my way to stop him getting his exclusive with Idi Amin. He is also of the belief that because I was working for the Nine Network at the time, he had every right to take the story as his own.