George Negus: Not long before the war in Iraq erupted we ran a very relevant program on travel and terrorism, looking at the inherent dangers of travelling overseas in a pretty dodgy world climate. Our studio guest that day was Peter Stening – a risk assessor for companies wanting to pack their employees off to work in the globe’s hot spots. We discovered that Peter didn’t just assess risk, he also worked as a hostage negotiator.
George Negus: Peter, good to meet you.
Peter Stening: And you.
George Negus: Very straightforward and simple question coming out of total ignorance – what does a risk broker actually do?
Peter Stening, Stening Simpson Brokers: We assess risk for clients who are travelling into areas that are regarded as basically unsafe.
George Negus: Individuals, companies, governments, what?
Peter Stening: Companies.
George Negus: Where do you get your information from to give other people – stuff that other, normal people couldn’t get from the media or elsewhere?
Peter Stening: A lot of it we get from the US Department of State, their counterparts in the UK, um, Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, of course, and then some private companies that we deal with.
George Negus: Right. Classified material too?
Peter Stening: Some of it is classified, but when we put it out, it’s cleaned a little bit.
George Negus: Yes, sanitised to some extent.
Peter Stening: Sanitised, yeah.
George Negus: I imagine some of the intelligence operations would come within your sphere of interest and information, though.
Peter Stening: Yes.
George Negus: The nice end of the spook market.
Peter Stening: Uh, yes… yes, you’re right. We share a lot of information.
George Negus: But getting those people to trust you must be a bit tricky.
Peter Stening: Well, I’ve been in the business now for over 30 years, so I guess…
George Negus: They know you.
Peter Stening: They know us.
George Negus: Know where you’re coming from. So what two things are most people afraid of now? Obviously terrorism and kidnapping.
Peter Stening: Kidnapping is a growth business.
George Negus: Really?
Peter Stening: Oh, yeah. It really is.
George Negus: But we don’t hear much about it.
Peter Stening: Well, 98 per cent of all kidnappings are never reported.
George Negus: Yeah, why is that? People just prefer not to know? Other people to know.
Peter Stening: Well, insurance companies don’t want people to know they’re paying out a lot of money.
George Negus: So how do you handle that? Is it just a matter of saying, “How much do you want? Hand over the money,” or what? How do you actually go about assessing something, because the risky bit from your point of view is getting it wrong.
Peter Stening: Yes, it is, but generally all they want to do is do a deal. I mean, it’s a business deal. Uh, they simply want to make money.
George Negus: Yes.
Peter Stening: They have an asset that we would like to have back and we pay for that asset to be released back to us.
George Negus: So I guess in a way it wouldn’t be all that smart for the kidnappers to actually knock somebody off, because they couldn’t come back again.
Peter Stening: No, it’s very bad business.
George Negus: How do you work out the cut-off point?
Peter Stening: Depends on the profile of the… of the asset that’s been taken, really.
George Negus: How important the person is.
Peter Stening: How important, yes.
George Negus: Are they worth, uh, you know, $10,000, $100,000? (Chuckles)
George Negus: I mean, that’s a very strange decision to have to make – what… what somebody’s life is worth.
Peter Stening: Yeah, you can’t become emotional about this. You’ve got to become, um, very, very, um… detached…
George Negus: Yes.
Peter Stening: ..from the family of the people that are involved.
George Negus: That sounds like a cue to me, because your company consulted on the Russell Crowe/Meg Ryan film, didn’t you? ‘Proof of Life’.
Peter Stening: ‘Proof of Life’.
George Negus: We have a clip, by total coincidence. Let’s have a look, because I’d like your reaction.
Terry Thorne (Russel Crow): OK, Marco. You’re not making all the rules here, mate. We want to work with you. But we want a proof of life or we’re not paying for it. If there’s any good faith, start with that.
Marco (Tony Vasquez): OK. So you are the one in charge now, uh?
Terry Thorne: That’s right.
Marco: Good. Then you will be responsible for the death of Peter Bowman!
Janis Goodman (Pamela Reed): Oh, Jesus!
Marco: Do you understand me? You are responsible! (Hangs up)
Alice Bowman (Meg Ryan): He’s gone?
Terry Thorne: Yeah. Get used to it. It’s the way it’s done.
George Negus: Is that how it’s done or is that Hollywood’s version?
Peter Stening: I think that what we saw in that clip really is Hollywood’s version. It doesn’t get, um… perhaps so involved with the family.
George Negus: You’d probably try and keep the family out of it.
Peter Stening: Absolutely. Yeah.
George Negus: Yeah. In the current world climate, which is probably as brittle, as fragile and potentially dangerous as I’ve seen, what do you say to people? If I asked you if I should go anywhere in the world now, what would you say?
Peter Stening: Our main concern, really, is that should the US go in with the coalition and hit Iraq, the sleeper cells that we know are sitting there are going to emerge. They’ll definitely come out of the woodwork. And you can look at London, um… any major cities in the world…
George Negus: Australia?
Peter Stening: Oh, yes.
George Negus: How seriously, though, should we take that threat?
Peter Stening: We should take it seriously. It’s here.
George Negus: By doing what?
Peter Stening: By being vigilant.
George Negus: I guess the tragic irony is the fact that the world’s a very risky place at the moment, is good for business where you’re concerned. Or is that a leading question?
Peter Stening: That is a leading question.
George Negus: But true?
Peter Stening: Unfortunately it is true, yes.
George Negus: Peter, thanks. It’s something I knew nothing about before.
Peter Stening: It’s a pleasure.
George Negus: It’d be interesting, wouldn’t it, to ask people right now, after the war in Iraq, whether they feel it’s more or less dangerous to travel overseas these days. It’s a good chance that they’d reckon it was more dangerous, not less, and they could be right.