Monday, May 15, 2017

Lack of transparency & accountability within Screen Australia

Senator Mitch Fifield
Minister for Communications and the Arts
Level 2
4 National Circuit
Barton, ACT 2600     
10th May 2017

Dear Senator Fifield

Is Caroline Fulton keeping a watchful eye on the goings on within Screen Australia, on your behalf, or have you got a fox guarding the henhouse?

Screen Australia’s ban on me, the 5th anniversary of which is today, has done significant damage to my reputation and my ability to earn a living as a filmmaker. Of more importance, however,  in the grand scheme of things, is the lies that senior management at SA have had to tell (lies endorsed by the SA Board) in order to justify the three successive two year bans placed on me so far.

What other lies are you told in order to hide from you what actually goes on at Screen Australia? Indeed, are the workings of Screen Australia of any interest to you at all? Many of us within the industry wonder! If you rely on Caroline Fulton to keep you reliably informed, is she working in your best interests or in those of her friends within Screen Australia?

A few days ago, on a popular Facebook thread dealing with the Australian film industry, the following anonymous comment was made:

"My instincts are to keep my head down and not question it (Screen Australia’s "no male creative teams" policy). To do so, as one of your commenters put it, is to not be ‘on the side of women.’…If you’re even vaguely critical of identity politics, you’re cast as resentful ‘sausage’.

"Gender Matters is broadly supported, but I have not met one person in the industry, male or female, who supports Screen NSW banning all men from applying for short film funding or Screen Oz mandating who will make up your creative team based on gender.

"The measures are serious over-reach and unnecessarily punitive, but we are at the mercy of the funding bodies, so who will risk publicly criticizing them? Not me, I’m ashamed to say."

Is it a matter of any concern to you that many (I would suggest most) filmmakers fear speaking out about Screen Australia’s policies out of fear of retribution? It is hard enough to get films made in this country without  having to deal with the consequences of a Screen Australia ban – whether this ban be official or unofficial.

The fundamental problem with Screen Australia boils down to a lack of transparency and accountability, and the lack of any meaningful complaints process. As you would be aware, if Caroline Fulton had ever brought it to your attention, five years ago I made a complaint to Chief Executive, Ruth Harley about Chief Operating Officer, Fiona Cameron. Who did Ruth give the job of investigating my complaint to? Fiona Cameron! The Screen Australia Board found nothing untoward about Fiona Cameron being tasked with the job of investigating herself. Last year I sought, through FOI, to obtain documents that would prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Graeme Mason had played fast and loose with the truth in correspondence with me. Who was it that knocked back my FOI request? Yes, it was Graeme Mason. The Screen Australia Board finds nothing untoward about this. And nor, it seems, do you!

If Fiona Cameron can investigate complaints about Fiona Cameron, if Graeme Mason can prevent the release of FOI documents relevant to his own honesty and integrity and if Caroline Fulton brings none of this to your attention, how can you possibly be alerted to what actually goes on within Screen Australia? Matters of much greater importance than the ban on one filmmaker? Who is there within your Ministry, to use Don Chipp’s famous expression, “to keep the bastards honest”? As far as I can tell, from my own experience, no-one. The Screen Australia Board and senior SA personnel are laws unto themselves and free to punish (ban) any filmmaker who suggests that this might be the case.

‘Banning’ applies for other filmmakers also. Not official banning of the kind I have experienced, but unofficial. And there is no avenue for redress if such filmmakers are treated badly by Screen Australia; if they are denied access to services available to other filmmakers who are “in favour”. Their complaints, if they dared make them, would be dismissed as disgruntlement at not being funded. This is an easy Get-Out-Of-Jail card that SA can play in response to any legitimate criticism of its policies or modus operandi.

I have suggested in previous correspondence that former SA staff receive  disproportionate amounts of development and production monies from  Screen Australia. Is this so? Or is it merely scuttlebutt? Is the question of any interest to you? If it is I would suggest that you get someone to ask the question who does not have a vested interest in the answer. My experience with your department suggests that your own staff are not the right people to ask such questions; that they are a part of the problem.

Similar questions apply for Board member Claudia Karvan:

“How much money has been invested by Screen Australia in Claudia Karvan projects since she became a member of the Screen Australia board?”

Two years ago the sum of $10 million. What is the figure in May 2017? Do you know? Do you care? Or is it perfectly OK for members of the Screen Australia Board to be, time and time again, in receipt of large sums of development and production monies voted on by fellow board members when, presumably, they leave the room?

I expect you to take what I write here (and in my previous letters, receipt of which is never acknowledged!) with a grain of salt. Your concern should be with demonstrable facts and not with unsubstantiated allegations; with scuttlebutt. I suggest that you also take what is reported to you about Screen Australia, including what Caroline Fulton chooses to bring to your attention, with a grain of salt. Indeed, I believe that an independent review into Screen Australia operations, its modus operandi, its policies, is long overdue.

I feel confident that an independent review of Screen Australia, one in which filmmakers felt free to raise their concerns without fear of retribution, would result in a laundry list of questions, the answers to which I believe need to be found. The asking of these questions must be by an independent individual (or body) whose career as a bureaucrat is not going to be adversely affected by the answers if these prove to be less than flattering to Screen Australia.

In relation to the ban placed on me in 2102, and rolled over twice now till 2018, let me relate to you a conversation I had not so long ago with a potential collaborator (a producer) that went something like this:

PRODUCER James, I read your screenplay. Liked it very much. Great potential. Would love to talk with you about it.
JAMES Great. However, I should warn you, in case you don’t know, I’ve been banned by Screen Australia.
PRODUCER What! Banned! For doing what?
JAMES Highly offensive conduct, intimidating Screen Australia staff. Placing them at risk. Harassment...It’s not true, but…
PRODUCER Shit! You’re kidding, right?
JAMES Nope. This has been going on for close to 5 years now. Not allowed to talk to staff, not allowed to meet with staff, not allowed to even talk with SA staff on the phone. Not allowed to make applications of any kind…
PRODUCER But…but…! They can’t do that, can they?
JAMES They have.
PRODUCER Shit! So, how do you…I mean, how can you make films if…?
JAMES It’s very difficult. And if you and I did agree to work together…I would not be able to go to any meetings with Screen Australia.

This Producer, quite understandably, stopped taking my calls; said he was too busy with other projects etc.

No-one wants to work with someone who either intimidates staff (and nor would I) or who has been black-listed by a film funding body without whose imprimatur or approval it is very difficult to get films made in this country. And when word spreads of the punishment meted out to critics of Screen Australia,  filmmakers get the message:  it is in their own best interests to keep their mouths shut in public; to reserve their criticisms of SA  for private conversation.

Is this what you want, Mr Fifield? A filmmaking community intimidated into silence by thin-skinned bureaucrats who will brook no criticism of their polices or modus operandi?

As for myself, I am not prepared to wait longer than 5 years to be provided with evidence in support of the Screen Australia Board’s belief that I must be banned in order to protect SA staff! If you believe, on the basis of the evidence that you have at your disposal (do you have any at all!?), that I am guilty of intimidating and placing at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff, that I am guilty of ‘highly offensive conduct’, you will not doubt support Screen Australia in the expenditure required to defend its ban on me in court. In the event that you do not believe there is any such evidence (and I can assure you there is not) you might like to suggest to Graeme Mason and the SA Board that they bring this farce to an end and admit, in whatever face-saving way is necessary (this is what spin doctors are for!) that the ban on me was ‘inappropriate’; that it should never have occurred. This would save a good deal of time, effort and money on the part of many people, myself included.

For the Screen Australia Board to acknowledge, at this late date, that there is no evidence that I am guilty of the charges that led to my being banned, would be difficult. However, it may be less difficult, and more cost effective  than having to go through an expensive legal exercise that will lead to the same result: James Ricketson is not guilty as charged!

I suggested a very simple solution to this dispute on 17th May 2012.

It was not taken up. Nor have any other suggestions I have made along these lines. Some variation of this could still occur if there were a will for it it. The ball is in Screen Australia’s court.

yours sincerely

James Ricketson

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