Nine Network could come under the spotlight of the corporate regulator after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said its 60 Minutes team was “most unwise” in pursuing a story on a child recovery operation in Lebanon.
Asked on Friday about the possibility money may have changed hands, Mr Turnbull said it was “of interest”.
“I’ve got no doubt it will be of interest to various regulatory agencies,” he told Sydney radio 2SM, raising the possibility the Australian Securities and Investments Commission could become involved.
A two-man child recovery team being held in a Beirut prison has presented as evidence to a judge a document purporting to show Nine paid $A69,000 to Child Abduction Recovery International for the ultimately botched operation.
With the 60 Minutes team of journalist Tara Brown, producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Benjamin Williamson and sound recordist David Ballment released on bail after facing abduction charges and back on Australian soil after two weeks in a Beirut jail, the network is facing questions over the payment.
Dated January 22, 2016, the “payment detail report” generated by ANZ notes a $69,000 fee drawn from the television network’s account for an “investigation into my missing child”.
The document presented in court on Thursday appears to support claims by the head of the CARI team, dual Australian-British man Adam Whittington, that he was paid directly by Nine to travel to Beirut and take the children of Australian Sally Faulkner from their Lebanese father.
“This is the first instalment of two payments that were given to my client by Channel 9,” Mr Whittington’s lawyer, Joe Karam, told AAP in Beirut.
Nine has declined to comment on claims it paid CARI directly and has since launched an internal investigation into the story and the legal nightmare four of its staff are facing.
Whittington and his British colleague Craig Michael appeared before Judge Rami Abdullah on Thursday in Beirut.
They were arrested after snatching Ms Faulkner’s two children, Lahela, five, and Noah, three, off a Beirut street as they were walking with their Lebanese grandmother.
The payment document “proves to you that my client is not the one who created all this”, Mr Karam said outside court.
“Sally wanted this, proposed this, Channel 9 had the opportunity of financing this and if it was a successful plan they would have the best scoop.”
Mr Karam also said it demonstrated Nine instructed Whittington “to move forward with this plan and with this operation related to the missing children”.
“Adam is very angry with Channel 9. He feels he has been left behind by them.”
Mr Elamine dropped personal kidnap charges against Ms Faulkner, Brown and her crew, paving the way for them to be released on bail after they were also arrested on April 6.
But so far he says he’s not yet prepared to drop charges against Mr Whittington and Mr Michael.
Mr Karam did ask for bail for the two men but the judge returned them to their cells.
The Australian Federal Police say the matter has yet to be referred.
“We’ve seen the media reporting but we haven’t received a referral in relation to that matter and our understanding is the Lebanese authorities still have an active investigation,” Acting Deputy Commissioner of Operations Ian McCartney said on Friday.
Mr McCartney also told a Senate inquiry on foreign bribery it might be difficult to investigate because the events did not happen in Australia, although he didn’t rule it out.
“In terms of factual information that’s been put on the table, that hasn’t occurred,” he said during the hearing in Sydney.
“We’ll look at the circumstances of each case.”