Tuesday, March 20, 2012

letter to Glen Boreham, Chair of Screen Australia Board

Dear Glen

Further to the many letters I have written to you this past 16 months regarding Fiona Cameron’s tendency to play fast and loose with the truth and with Ruth Harley’s tendency to turn a blind eye to Fiona’s lies. Of course, you and the Board have likewise chosen to turned a blind eye to the lack of transparency and accountability exhibited by senior management at Screen Australia. In all my 40 years of filmmaking I have never encountered such a toxic combination of corporate dishonesty and incompetence as has been manifest during Ruth Harley’s reign as CEO. It seems that these qualities are prerequisites for positions in senior management at Screen Australia!

You will no doubt ignore this letter as you have the vast majority I have sent you. That Fiona Cameron is a liar, that she investigates complaints made about herself, herself, are of little interest to the Screen Australia Board! Mind you, these aspects of the way in which Screen Australia is run are not of concern to the Minister, the Hon Simon Crean either and it may be that the office of the Prime Minister feels the same. We shall see.

My most recent letters to the office of the Ombudsman, to the Prime Minister and to Caroline Fulton (copies enclosed) speak for themselves. They contain nothing that you have not been aware of for the past 16 months and have chosen to ignore – in the hope, I guess, that I would eventually simply accept that I have been screwed by Screen Australia and forget about it. Alas, this is not my style.

On Friday 16th March I sent the following email to Nick Coyle, Screen Australia’s FOI officer. It also speaks for itself:

Dear Nick

It is important always to maintain one’s sense of humour when dealing with Screen Australia! Perhaps the same applies for employees!

I know that it is an incredibly complicated question and many meetings may be necessary to  find an answer, but how long does it take to find out which members of senior management at Screen Australia are public servants and hence subject to the Public Service Code of Conduct? It’s been over two weeks so far! How many more weeks is it likely to be? Mind you it would never have been necessary to call upon your services anyway if Screen Australia did not believe that it was necessary to keep this information secret!

I have another FOI request – most definitely the oddest I have ever made and, I suspect, the oddest one you will ever have to deal with. It is for a document (or documents) that do not exist. Let me explain:

In Nov 2010 Fiona Cameron wrote a letter to me that included the following assertion:

“Unfortunately it appears from your correspondence that you came away from that meeting with an understanding that your application for further funding for Chanti’s World had been effectively green lit. This is not the case. Nor could it be.”

For 16 months I have asked Fiona to produce the correspondence she refers to. She has not done so. This is not surprising because it does not exist. Not only does Fiona know it does not exist but so too do Ruth Harley and Glen Boreham. And the Commonwealth Ombudsman would have discovered that it did not exist also if he had bothered to ask Fiona Cameron to produce it. He did not. He simply accepted Fiona’s word (implicit in her letter) that it existed! As I say, a sense of humour is necessary in this age of transparency and accountability we live in!

There is, I suppose, the possibility that at some moment in 2010, having taken temporary leave of my senses, I did write the correspondence  that Fiona is referring to and, amnesia being a component of my addled state at the time,  have completely forgotten that I did so. So, in order to find out if such correspondence exists, what better way than to call upon the services of Screen Australia’s FOI officer with my strange request – for a document that I claim does not exist! If it does exist I will have egg all over my face and may well need to plead insanity. If it does not exist, Fiona has some explaining to do and an apology to make.

I do appreciate, Nick, that having Fiona as your boss must complicate a request  such as this somewhat but I trust that the fair administration of FOI is not affected by such details.

I am copying this to all of those in the Documentary section of Screen Australia who likewise know that the correspondence Fiona refers to does not exist but who have managed to maintain a conspiracy of silence this past 16 months. And I have attached my letter of two weeks ago to Prime Minister Gillard in hopes that she may put some pressure on Simon Crean to take an interest in the lack of respect for the ideals of accountability and transparency evinced by senior SA personnel. Not sure who to write to if the Prime Minister’s office ignores the letter. The United Nations!


Poor Nick! I do not envy him the dilemma he is confronted by. If he can’t find the correspondence that Fiona refers to (and he won’t be able to) this should be proof positive that Fiona was lying when she wrote her letter to me in Nov 2010. But then you’ve known that, Glen,  for a long time – you, the Board, Ruth Harley, everyone in the Documentary section of Screen Australia. For you to acknowledge now that Fiona has lied would amount to a confession that the entire organization, up to and including the Board, has had, this past 16 months, no interest in facts, in the truth, but will accept as Gospel whatever spin Fiona Cameron comes up with – with the blessing of Ruth Harley. As I have acknowledged many times, my dispute with Screen Australia is (to all but myself) a storm in a teacup. What this particular storm says about the management of Screen Australia is, however (or at least should be) a matter of concern to the Board and to the Minister.

best wishes

James Ricketson
cc Prime Minister, the Hon Julia Gillard
Commonwealth Ombudsman

Monday, March 19, 2012

2nd letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard

Dear Prime Minister

Further to my letter of 27th Feb.

I do hope that someone in your office read my last letter, will read this one and ask the obvious questions: Why is Mr Ricketson not writing to the relevant Minister, the Hon Simon Crean? Is what he says about Chief Operating Officer Fiona Cameron playing fast and loose with the truth, true? Does Fiona Cameron investigate complaints made about herself? Is this a job for our top spin doctor or is there a problem with Screen Australia that needs to be and should be addressed?

The interrelated problems that need to be addressed are:
Problem # 1: Simon Crean (or whoever the relevant person in his office might be) is not at all concerned by the ramifications of having, in senior management at Screen Australia, people who have little respect for the ideals of transparency and accountability.
Problem #2: Screen Australia’s Chief Operating Officer, Fiona Cameron, has little respect for facts,  for due process, and plays fast and loose with the truth.
Problem #3: Fiona Cameron investigates complaints made about herself. (Surely the days are long gone when a senior bureaucrat investigates complaints made about her own conduct!?)
Problem # 4: Fiona Cameron’s boss, Ruth Harley finds nothing inappropriate at all about Ms Cameron’s behaviour.
Problem # 5: Glen Boreham and the Screen Australia Board seem sublimely unconcerned that Fiona Cameron tells lies, that Ruth Harley turns a bind eye and that there is no functioning complaints process within Screen Australia.

Any independent observer in your office – looking at the facts, unswayed by spin – would arrive at one of two conclusions:
(1) Mr Ricketson is wrong, there is no evidence at all to support his assertions or
(2) Mr Ricketson’s assertions are backed up by demonstrable fact and need to be addressed.

Rather than acknowledge the shoddiness of an assessment of my project CHANTI’S WORLD by Clare Jaeger, the Documentary Section of Screen Australia closed ranks behind Ms Jager. That neither Ms Jager nor Ross Mathews had actually seen the promo that was the centrepiece of my application was of no consequence. With Ross Mathews refusing to answer any questions at all in relation to my complaint, I was left with no choice but to appeal to Chief Operating Officer Fiona Cameron to consider my complaint on the basis of facts. Ms Cameron decided not to let the facts get in the way of her decision to support Claire Jager, Ross Mathews and others in the Documentary section.  She overplayed her hand somewhat by placing on file statements she knew to be untrue – thus shifting the focus of my complaint from Claire Jager’s incompetence to my own integrity as a filmmaker. Instead of being a filmmaker with a valid complaint, Ms Cameron characterized me as a filmmaker miffed that I had not been given money that I had thought I would be given. I had, she claimed, said as much in correspondence to Screen Australia.  When asked to produce this correspondence Ms Cameron, like a petulant schoolgirl, announced that she would communication with me no further. That such dishonesty and petulance can be practiced by someone in Ms Cameron’s position beggars belief! And this is the person who looks into complaints made about Screen Australia’s inability to abide by its own guidelines!

If, perchance. Ms Cameron was unaware that the statements she placed on file were untrue, why has she, this past 16 months, done nothing to rectify her mistake? Why has she not apologized and corrected the file – as I have asked many times this last 16 months? Instead, she has informed me, in accordance with her own interpretation of the Screen Australia guidelines, that I may never again present CHANTI’S WORLD to Screen Australia for funding consideration.

And what is CHANTI’S WORLD? It is a documentary I have been working on for 16 years now – a record of the life of a young woman growing up on the streets of Phnom Penh from 8 year old beggar to 24 year old mother of five. CHANTI’S WORLD is the follow-up film to SLEEPING WITH CAMBODIA, completed in 1996 – a documentary that rated highly on the ABC and has been sold all around the world.  Alas, once Claire Jager had written her ill informed and factually incorrect assessment two years ago,leading to Screen Australia’s decision to back her and Ross Mathews regardless, the writing was on the wall for CHANTI’S WORLD as far as Screen Australia is concerned. Fiona Cameron’s decision that it can never again be presented to Screen Australia is both vindictive (in the pettiest way) and discriminatory. A person who behaves as she does should not be in the senior position she holds at Screen Australia – a position that requires total honesty and, when dealing with complaints, a commitment to the facts as opposed to a commitment to back up Screen Australia staff under any and all circumstances.

I trust that someone in your office will look at the facts here and make a determination based on them and not on whatever spin Fiona Cameron, Ruth Harley and Glen Boreham may present in their defence.

best wishes

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Censorship and the Emperor's New Clothes

Encore’s reasons for deciding not to publish my piece about the ethics of presenting real people as characters in drama has induced me to do some thinking about the way in which censorship manifests itself within the Australian film industry. There are, broadly speaking, two forms of censorship – one that is imposed from outside and one that we impose on ourselves for reasons of self-preservation. The external form can all too easily lead to the self-imposed form – as I think has happened in our industry.

The Courtiers in The Emperor’s New Clothes epitomize the dangers of self-censorship taken to an absurd extreme. To suggest that the Emperor had no clothes on was not a wise career move for a Courtier hoping for advancement in the Emperor’s court! To what extent does the Emperor’s New Clothes dynamic operate within the Australian film industry? Are we, as an industry, as a film culture, as brutally honest with ourselves as we should be? Do we fear that revelation of how few clothes we have on might make the tax-paying public wonder why on earth it is supporting an industry that, with a few exceptions (broad Aussie comedies of late), makes films that most Australian’s don’t want to see? But I digress…

An example of externally imposed censorship:  Last year, during an ‘industry forum’  at which Ruth Harley and Tania Chambers represented Screen Australia and Screen NSW respectively, Encore magazine was given permission to film Ruth and Tania’s presentations but was told that it could not film the Q & A with the audience that followed. The official reason given was that the presence of Encore’s camera might inhibit filmmakers from speaking unguardedly. The actual reason, as disclosed to me, was that Encore feared it would be sued if it broadcast, online, filmmaker’s comments that Screen Australia deemed defamatory. And what might Screen Australia deem defamatory? Hard to know and we’ll never find out because the threat was sufficient to guarantee that no ‘defamatory’ comments  or observations were recorded on tape and hence could be broadcast. 

There is not much that can be done to combat this kind of externally imposed censorship other than to stand up to it and refuse to be intimidated; to call the bluff of institutions within society that have the power to use the threat of legal action to suppress debate or to prevent disclosure of information suggestive of either incompetence or corruption. One would like to think that various industry guilds and organizations would band together to protect the freedom of important and essential speech but it is not the case.   

The threat of externally imposed censorship can easily lead to the other form of censorship that can be just as insidious – self-censorship. Yes, caution is required in writing about a case before the courts – like ‘Mac’ Buttrose’s suing of the producers of PAPER GIANTS - but how likely is it, in reality, that Encore magazine would be sued for hosting a debate about the ethics of representing real people as fictional characters in which passing (and non-defamatory) references is made to PAPER GIANTS?  This is, in my view, a form of self-censorship that is as bad as overt external censorship when it comes to stifling dialogue and debate about issues of concern to us all as story-tellers.

If you believe, dear Reader, what I write here is, in you view, nonsense, you should be free to express this opinion. Unfortunately, with the demise of Encore as a venue in which divergent opinions could be expressed, there is virtually nowhere where ‘robust’ debate occurs anymore about contentious matters of interest to Australian filmmakers.

Creating fictional characters based on real people!

Another of my ‘opinion’ pieces (though I prefer ‘discussion starter’ myself) has fallen foul of Encore censorship. Inspired by a story in today’s newspaper, I thought my few words might open up a discussion about the thorny question of how to represent, in our stories, fictional characters based on real people – especially those who are alive.

"Imagine, dear Encore Reader, through circumstances beyond your control, that your association with someone (spouse, parent, child or friend) you become an object of public curiosity - so much so that some filmmaker thinks that the story of which you are a part (no matter how small) is one worthy of being immortalized on either the silver or plasma screen. There is only one problem, however, and that is that the realities of narrative story-telling necessitate that some liberties be taken with the biographical details of your life. In order for the character based on yourself to serve his/her dramatic function you need to be presented in such and such a way - even if ‘such and such’ a way is our of sync with the realities of your life. You may be a perfectly delightful, generous easy going person but the role calls for a bitch. You may be a decisive, no-time-for-bullshit, take-no-prisoners kind of guy who calls a spade a spade but the screenplay calls for a sensitive soul who would never call a spade a spade for fear of offending. The bottom line is that the dramatised version of yourself is nothing like the way you see yourself or, indeed, the way your friends (and/or enemies) see you. Does it matter? Do you have a right to complain? Are filmmakers under any obligation at all to consult with you before they immortalize your persona in pixels? The case brought by Ita Buttrose’s husband about his portrayal in PAPER GIANTS highlights a dilemma confronted by all screenwriters and other filmmakers who seek to portray characters based on living people whilst at the same timeserving up to audiences compelling drama? What do my fellow filmmakers think?” 

Tim Burrows, editor of Encore, declined to publish on the grounds that the matter was sub judice.

So, there is now another question worthy of discussion: Can we have a debate within the industry about the ethics of presenting real people as fictional characters in drama or must we remain silent for as long as the PAPER GIANTS case is in the courts – which could be years? Alternatively, I suppose, we could have a debate and make no reference at all to PAPER GIANTS!