FORMER 60 Minutes camera man, turned tell-all author Nicholas Lee is not sure his one-time employers at Nine are going to welcome the timing of his new book — but its eye-opening admissions and racy anecdotes from life on the road for the embattled flagship show should undoubtably make it a bestseller for his publisher, Allen & Unwin.
Lee — who spent 30 years working on the program until suffering a brain haemorrhage in 2012 and reluctantly retiring — told News Corp Australia he enjoyed writing the deliciously gossipy memoir, All This In 60 Minutes, “as much as I enjoyed my job because I got to relive all those great experiences and all that great camaraderie.”
But it’s the detail in the more dramatic moments he endured which should get a few executive pulses racing at Nine’s Willoughby bunker — released amid the heat of their bungled Beirut child snatch scandal and return of star reporter, Tara Brown to air (7pm, tonight).
Working alongside some of the brand’s biggest names, including Brown, Liz Hayes, Ray Martin, George Negus, Mike Munro and founding EP, Gerald Stone, Lee spills on everything from accidentally smuggling drugs on a trip between Cairo and Berlin; to bribing their way from one story to another.
Now at a distance from its most recent misadventure in Lebanon - which saw Brown, producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Ben Williamson and recordist David Ballment jailed initially on kidnapping charges - Lee admits it wasn’t the show’s first close call with the law.
“We lived those harrowing circumstances for 30 years. Even though I’ve made the book a joke and a romp with lots of humour, there were lots of harrowing experiences that we all survived.”
He opens the book in the company of notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin; then trips quickly on to boozing from one international assignment to the next, even buying hashish from a Cairo teen while in Egypt with Ian Leslie to interview President Anwar Sadat, (who would be assassinated 18 months later).
Recounting how the wheels of diplomacy and current affairs journalism turned back then, Lee writes: “bribery plays a big part for film crews travelling the world, but every now and then, surprise, surprise, you meet an honest official and he or she takes offence at our assumption that they’d be on the take, and decides to make life even more difficult.”
As the next chapter ‘I Forgot To Flush’ begins, Lee is drinking champagne in first class, while en route to the next story in Berlin, when he remembers he’s left the leftover dope in his bag; scared witless he’ll spend four years in a German prison cell.
“I don’t know what 60 Minutes is going to think of that chapter but I genuinely didn’t attempt to smuggle hash into Berlin, but I had just forgotten it was in my bag. And we didn’t want to waste it, did we?” he said, laughing.
The most terrifying moment of his globe-trotting career came in 1979, when he was dragged from his business class seat by armed Israeli soldiers and interrogated in the back of a van parked on the tarmac.
“I was sitting happily in my seat next to Ray Martin, when these six soldiers come barging down the aisle with their machine guns. I thought ‘geez, some bloke’s in trouble’ then they stopped, pointed at me and ordered me off the plane. Ray couldn’t do anything, the hosties couldn’t do anything, they were all too scared.”
Four hours of questioning later, “like I was in a bad spy movie,” Lee was freed with still no idea why he was singled out and stopped at all.
“They never told me why, they just suddenly let me go.”
Speaking in defence of his embattled former colleague Brown [pictured left with Lee in Kenya], he enthused: “I reckon she is probably the best interviewer 60 Minutes has ever had. She’s just so insightful,” he said. “She’s got the skill, if people start heading off on a tangent, she lets them go, then she slowly drags them back in. She’s amazing.”
* All This In 60 Minutes, by Nicholas Lee, is published by Allen & Unwin from Wednesday, July 27 (rrp $32.99).