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Checkbook journalism under fire as Schapelle Corby eyes big payday for interview

By Tim Hume, CNN
updated 9:37 PM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
  • Australian TV networks are chasing an interview with drug trafficker Schapelle Corby
  • A tradition of checkbook journalism means she stands to earn a significant amount
  • A host for the network tipped to secure the interview has publicly criticized any payment
  • Experts say any funds could be recovered by authorities under proceeds of crime laws

(CNN) -- Reports that Schapelle Corby could earn millions of dollars for her first post-jail media interview have triggered howls of protest that crime will have paid for the Australian drug trafficker.

But legal experts say Australia's proceeds of crime laws could ultimately make it a challenge for her to hold on to any profits made from selling her story.

A high-profile breakfast host for Australian television network Seven -- the broadcaster tipped to be the front-runner to secure the Corby interview -- spoke out on-air Tuesday voicing his disapproval at unconfirmed reports his bosses were set to pay A$2 million (about $1.8 million) for her story.

"I reckon we should have nothing to do with her as a network. Totally disagree with paying a convicted drug smuggler A$2 million," said David Koch, co-host of the Sunrise program.

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"I know Indonesia's corrupt and all that sort of stuff, but you know, she's convicted, so why pay the money?"

Seven did not respond to CNN's request for comment, but in Bali, Seven journalist Mike Willesee told reporters outside the luxury compound where Corby has been staying with her family that the network was paying for security guards attached to her since her release.

He said a deal had not yet been struck to secure the interview, but disputed the amounts cited by Koch.

Corby, 36, was released on parole from a prison in Bali, Indonesia, Monday after being convicted almost nine years ago of smuggling 9 pounds (4.1 kilograms) of marijuana into Bali's Denpasar International Airport.

She has maintained she was the victim of a set-up and many Australians sympathize with her cause.

Her case has attracted immense interest from Australian media, and on her release she was mobbed by a throng of reporters chasing an interview.

But Jenna Price, senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, said forking out big dollars for the Corby interview "could backfire" on the network that successfully bid on her story this time.

She said there was a long tradition of "checkbook journalism" by Australia's highly competitive commercial broadcasters, stretching back to the Lindy Chamberlain case in the 1980s.

But while popular sentiment surrounding certain stories, such as the Beaconsfield mine collapse survivors, held that subjects were entitled to financially benefit from their experiences, public sympathy for, and interest in, Corby appeared to have waned in the years since her conviction.

"I just don't think people feel very fondly about Schapelle Corby. They just don't," said Price. "They did, and then they got bored with her."

On social media, many were critical of the reports of an impending big payday for Corby.

"I see a line of pot smugglers heading towards Bali, thinking 'In 10 years, I'll be rich!'" wrote Twitter user @milesb.

"That's 200k per year her jail time... Plus other money she's going to make... Not a bad wage," wrote @Crafterxxx.

Checkbook journalism by television networks has been under scrutiny in Australia recently, after Seven reportedly paid a significant sum for an interview with the partner of Simon Gittany, subsequently sentenced today to 18 years for having murdered his former girlfriend.

Price said the negative public response to Corby's potential paycheck were in part "a response to being bored to tears" by the saga.

"The entire time she's been in prison, every bit of Schapelle's life has been thoroughly explored. What more could she possibly tell us?"

She said unimpressive ratings for a telemovie based on Corby's story were evidence of the public's fatigue.

"It's staggering to me that Seven is doing this because they must have had some indication that the audience was tiring of the story."

Hugh McDermott, senior law enforcement lecturer at Charles Sturt University, said Corby could find it difficult to hold on to any money earned for an interview, due to Australian laws allowing the government to seize assets acquired through the proceeds of criminal activity.

Australian authorities had previously used those provisions to seize Corby's earnings from a magazine interview, he said.

"There's a real question as to whether there would be an appetite to go after her, because she is so popular here in some sectors, but there are people in Indonesian law enforcement who would very much like to go after her if she's paid that money," he said.

Under an agreement between Australia and Indonesia, Indonesian authorities could request that their Australian counterparts act to recover the funds.

However, Corby could attempt to put the money beyond reach of officials by placing it in an offshore bank account or trust, he said.

"If she's smart, she will put the money offshore so it can't be touched," he said.

The first clear picture of Corby since her release appeared in Australian media Tuesday, a picture of her toasting her freedom with a beer alongside her brother. The picture was subsequently removed from websites amid a dispute over who owned, and who had been paid for, the photo.

READ: After 9 years in Indonesia prison on drug charges, Schapelle Corby walks free

READ: The drug smuggling case that gripped Australia

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