“My great desire was to take away any sense of superiority or snobbery about people’s tastes and make it really accessible”: The Book Club host Jennifer Byrne. Photo: Christopher Pearce Reporter Tara Brown Brown, centre, David Ballment, left, and Sally Faulkner, right, have been released from a Beirut jail. Photo: Nine Network
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Jennifer Byrne, host of ABC TV’s The Book Club, has defended the 60 Minutes crew and reporter Tara Brown embroiled in the botched Beirut child snatch operation.

“I think that team has been shockingly maligned,” she said. “I don’t think all of them may have even known all the circumstances of what was happening.”

Byrne was a reporter on 60 Minutes from 1986 to 1993.

Fellow 60 Minutes reporter Ray Martin admitted he drove the getaway car in a child recovery operation in Spain in 1980.

Asked if she had been involved in a similar story, Byrne said: “I won’t say more, but the answer is no.”

She added: “I think there’s been a lot of self-satisfaction and smugness in people pointing at this.”

Byrne described the circumstances surrounding the controversial child recovery operation – which landed the four Nine employees, Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner and a child recovery team in jail – as “fiendishly complicated”.

“I just wish people felt less impelled to contribute their views constantly until they have looked at the whole thing, which has not come out yet,” she said.

The child recovery team led by Australian man Adam Whittington, his child-retrieval associate Craig Michael and two Lebanese men was denied bail by a Beirut judge on Thursday.

Byrne said she “loathed” chequebook journalism “and that’s one of the reasons I don’t support a program using it or magazine paying for it”.

But she also pointed to the hypocrisy of people who criticise this form of journalism and then consume it. Byrne suggests audiences should be told when money has been paid for a story.

The viewer should be privy to the deal, she said, “so they can make an informed choice”.

Byrne has found success in a very different genre as host of The Book Club – the show’s 10th series starts on Tuesday in a weekly format, rather than once a month.

“My great desire was to take away any sense of superiority or snobbery about people’s tastes and make it really accessible,” Byrne says of the show. “It has to feel cosy, it has to feel non-judgmental. You have to have a bit of an intellectual hop-and-a-jump but I just think we really, really try to talk about something we love and viewers love.”

The new weekly format demands an intense reading schedule for Byrne, who reads two to three books a week, often simultaneously.

“We’ve gone from a slow walk to a massive rocket ride,” she says.

She will be joined by regulars Marieke Hardy and The Age’s literary editor Jason Steger, plus guests including writer Ben Law, actor Virginia Gay and blogger Rosie Waterland.

They will be joined in the first episode by award-winning UK author Jeanette Winterson, and will discuss Australian author Dominic Smith’s historical fiction The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

The latter promises to be a bone of contention between Byrne (a Heathcliff fan) and Hardy, who is not a fan of the classic novel.

“Marieke’s always punchy,” Byrne says. “She’s fabulous but she’s the most arbitrary and unpredictable creature. I squabble with her all the time because she’s so wrong.”

The Book Club airs on ABC on Tuesday at 10pm.

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