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

Friday, May 12, 2017

Graeme Mason makes an offer he thinks I cannot refuse!

Members of the Screen Australia Board
Screen Australia
Level 7, 45 Jones St
Ultimo 2007                                                                                                  

5th May 2017

Dear Screen Australia Board members

In response to Graeme Mason’s email of 4th May; this being his response to my letter to himself and the Board of 1st May.

In response to the 4 scenarios I proposed, Graeme writes:

1)    Is not currently possible
2)    You as Director and/or Writer with another person in role of Producer would be acceptable, provided that the Producer is the applicant and that there is no direct contact with you
3)    You as writer, again would be acceptable as we have many projects where we deal with the Producer and Director in the main with little if any direct contact with the writer. Again this would need to involve no contact with you
4)    Is not currently possible

Lest there be any confusion about where I stand with Screen Australia Graeme writes:

“I have decided that Screen Australia would accept and assess an application for Ships in the Night provided that you are not the producer of the production, are not the contact and do not lodge the application or have direct contact or communication with staff.

I think it would be fair to summarize the key point thus:

The Screen Australia Board considers that James Ricketson poses a risk to SA staff.  Owing to its duty of care, the Board cannot allow staff to meet with or communicate with him.

I received a 2nd email from Screen Australia on 4th May regarding my 4th April FOI request for documents relating to evidence in support of SA’s decision to ban me. It can be can summarized thus:

Screen Australia has no intention of providing James Ricketson with evidence of the risk he allegedly poses to SA staff; of his ‘highly offensive conduct’.

I am left with no choice now but to seek this evidence through the courts. Or, to be more precise, to take legal action to prove that there is no evidence; that I should never have been banned in May 2012 and that the two subsequent bans placed on me by Screen Australia (May 2014 and My 2016) were unwarranted,  unnecessary and enormously damaging to both my reputation and my ability to earn a living as an Australian filmmaker.

Dealing with the most pertinent parts of Graeme’s email. He writes:

“I am not, for the purposes of answering your practical or operational requests, going to once more go over the issues which led to you being deemed ineligible.”

As you know, the issues that led to my being ineligible have never been addressed this past 5 years – namely evidence in support of the proposition that I intimidated and placed at tisk members of SA staff.  For Graeme to use the expression “to once more go over the issues” is disingenuous, to say the least! No evidence has ever been presented to me that I intimidated or placed at risk members of Screen Australia staff; that I have, as Jane Supit puts it, engaged in  “highly offensive conduct”.

The Screen Australia Board  has, for five years, refused to provide evidence of any kind. You have hoped, through the repetition of fallacious allegations made by senior SA bureaucrats, that these would become accepted as fact by the film community of which I have been a part for more than 40 years. I, on the other hand, have consistently and continually requested that I be provided with evidence of my intimidating and ‘at risk’ correspondence. On many occasions I have stated that if such evidence exists, if it were to be presented to myself and the film community, I would accept the ban placed on me as being appropriate. No filmmaker should intimidate or place at risk members of staff within any funding body.

The Board’s assertion, through Graeme Mason, that I pose a threat to SA staff is not just hurtful and defamatory; it is a lie. And you all know it to be a lie. And you hope, in the perpetuation of this lie, that my fellow filmmakers will believe it and judge the ban on me as being justified. This is what has, in fact, occurred in the case of the Australian Director’s Guild – a body of which I was a founding member. The ADG will not accept me as a member if I am to be critical in any way of Screen Australia, will not publish any opinion pieces I write in the ADG Screen Director magazine and refuses to even publish, in its newsletter, the fact that I have been banned! This is not just evidence of the extent to which Screen Australia has damaged my reputation but evidence also of Screen Australia’s intimidating into silence all within our industry who are reliant, one way or another on Screen Australia, as is the case with the ADG through the funds it receives from SA.

The fate of James Ricketson stands as a stark reminder to any filmmaker who has the temerity to criticize Screen Australia in public; any filmmaker who exercises his or her right of free speech.

Given Screen Australia’s refusal to provide me with evidence of my intimidating and ‘at risk’ correspondence I  have sought this through FOI legislation, many times now. My FOI requests have been knocked back on the grounds that it is not in the ‘public interest’ that I be appraised of evidence of my “highly offensive conduct”. That Screen Australia should breach both the letter and the spirit of FOI legislation to deny me evidence of my ‘crimes’ speaks volumes of the hope of the Screen Australia board that I will simply give up in my quest for evidence. In this the Board is mistaken.

Graeme writes:

“At this point in time Screen Australia would require a way to manage a project in which you were involved so that there is no contact, either face to face or in writing, between you and our staff.”

Why can there be no contact between SA staff and myself either face to face or in writing? I have been asking this for five years but will ask again:

Have I ever, in a face-to-face meeting with a member of Screen Australia staff, acted in such a way as to make them feel at risk? Have I ever behaved offensively? Have I ever sworn at members of staff? Threatened them?

The answer, as you know, is ‘no’. If you truly believe the answer to be ‘yes’, cite one instance in which I have behaved in such a manner. You will not because you cannot. It suits the Board’s purposes (the vilification of James Ricketson) to make such allegations but to refuse, point blank, to back them up with facts; with evidence.

The same applies in the case of written communication. Please provide me with just one instance in which what I have written to a member of SA staff has paced them at risk or amounted to intimidation? Or has been “highly offensive”? You cannot and will not because there are no such instances. Yes, I have been a vocal critic of Screen Australia since its inception. And yes, when lies about me have been placed on file I have advocated on my own behalf to have these lies struck from the record; removed from the files.

There is no need to revisit this aspect of my now 6 year dispute with Screen Australia. It is all well-documented and it is all available for anyone who is interested on my blog. This was the reason why I placed my correspondence on my blog, so that my fellow filmmakers could make up their own minds as to whether or not I deserve to be banned by Screen Australia. These same documents will now be available to the court to view in making a determination on this matter.

That I should now have to resort to the courts to acquire such evidence is absurd – a waste of the the time, energy and money of both myself and Screen Australia. However, I have no choice but to pursue this course of action in order to prove to my fellow filmmakers that there is no evidence.

Graeme writes:

“The requirement that you not have contact with staff will stay in place until such time as I am certain that there is clearly shown good will, courtesy and respect towards staff and no risk to staff. It is only in those circumstances that the ban may be lifted and normal relations resumed. “

At the risk of belabouring the point, please explain to me, members of the SA Board, what you mean by ‘risk’? What kind of risk? Of physical violence? Of verbal abuse? At risk of what? Provide me with at least one example of my having placed a member of SA staff at risk!

This is a question that the court will, as I am sure you must be aware, wish to acquire an answer to. The Board could save a lot of people a lot of time, energy and money by answering it now and not having the answer extracted from Graeme Mason during expensive legal proceedings.

Graeme writes:

“In order for Screen Australia to be able to change its current position on your eligibility, Screen Australia must be satisfied that you will not persistently and unreasonably denigrate or make unreasonable demands on our staff and Board members.”

I trust that it has not escaped the attention of Board members just how often the words used to describe my ‘crime’ have changed! There is no longer talk of ‘intimidation’ or “highly offensive conduct”. Now I am guilty of “unreasonably denigrating” members of staff and Board members. This begs a number of questions:

What have I written about members of staff or the Board that is “denigrating”?

Given that Graeme qualifies this accusation with the word “unreasonable” am I to take it that some ‘denigration’ is ‘reasonable’?

Perhaps the dictionary can help us here:

DENIGRATE: “to criticize unfairly”, “to disparage.”

Have my criticisms of Screen Australia been unfair? Or do Screen Australia’s thin-skinned senior bureaucrats and Board members see any and all criticism of SA as ‘unfair’?

“to disparage” means, in this context “to criticize someone or something in a way that shows you do not respect or value him.”

It is true that I have little professional respect for bureaucrats who place untrue statements on record (Fiona Cameron) or who lie – Ruth Harley – but is disparagement a reason to ban a filmmaker? The expression, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” comes to mind.

Graeme writes:

“In relation to your current eligibility status Screen Australia is on firm ground.”

I do not believe that Screen Australia is on firm ground at all and am prepared to test this assertion in court.

Graeme’s reference to my having “tested numerous avenues” is clearly a reference to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The correspondence between myself and the Ombudsman is all on record (and on my blog) and I need not review it. I will make the point, however, that in the six years I have dealt with the Commonwealth Ombudsman he and his representatives have never once asked Screen Australia to provide evidence in support of the proposition that I have intimidated or placed at risk members of SA staff; that I have engaged in “highly offensive conduct”. Instead, the Ombudsman has provided the imprimatur of its approval to the ban on me on the grounds that, and I quote:

You have referred to the actions of SA ‘childish, stupid and counter-productive.

You have referred to the actions of SA as Mc Carthyism, directly tying the refusal of communication to your criticism of that agency.

You have made reference to SA representatives as having lied, or being liars.

This would be laughable if it did not reveal that the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman is not up to the task of investigating complaints in a thorough, competent and independent manner.

The other ‘avenue’ Graeme refers to is the Australian Government Solicitor; in possession of the ‘evidence’ provided by Ruth Harley in May 2012 to justify the alteration of Screen Australia’s Terms of Trade - for the sole purpose of banning me. Ms Louise Vardanega (copied on this letter) has made it clear that she cannot provide me with a copy of this ‘evidence’ without Screen Australia’s approval. Screen Australia refuses to provide such approval. The reason is abundantly clear. The Board knows that whatever ‘evidence’ Ruth Harley provided to the Australian Government Solicitor is nonsense and that I would very easily be able to demonstrate this fact if I were privy to it.

Graeme writes:

“…to be clear the reason I am telling you this is that Screen Australia does not want to go back to square one with you in the event that a project that you are attached to is not successful in getting our funding.”

Graeme repeats here the lie placed on record by Fiona Cameron that kick started this dispute 7 years ago. Again, Graeme is being disingenuous. I have never, in my life, complained about not receiving funding. Never. If, as Board members, you have any respect at all for facts, evidence, truth, present me with evidence that I made the complaint Fiona Cameron referred to; that Graeme is now referring to.  Provide me with evidence that I have behaved in a way that warrants my being banned or instruct Graeme to stop placing such demonstrably untrue nonsense on file.

Graeme’s offer to accept an application for a James Ricketson project under the conditions he outlines is a cynical exercise in bureaucratic bullying. For me to accept such conditions would involve acknowledging the truth of what Graeme states quite clearly – namely that I pose a threat to SA staff. For as long as such lies are placed on file – damaging to me both professionally and personally - and disseminated within the film industry, there is no possibility of any form of détente between myself and Screen Australia.

Five years is long enough to wait for justice to prevail in this matter. I will now instruct my legal counsel to do whatever is legally necessary to secure the evidence the Screen Australia Board refuses to provide me with.

best wishes

James Ricketson