Thursday, September 20, 2012

No accountability or transparency at Screen Australia

My most recent email to Liz Crosby, sent to her three days ago (18th Sept), speaks for itself of my latest (and last) attempt to resolve this matter in such a way as to avoid causing her any more distress. Liz did not respond to my email, as has been the case for the past 21 months with every piece of correspondence sent to her.

Dear Liz

I have gone beyond being distressed to being angry that, as a result of my being banned by Screen Australia on Ruth Harley’s trumped up charges, I have almost certainly lost the ‘Chanti’s World’ pre-sale I had with a major international broadcaster. It can hardly be blamed for not wanting to be involved in a dispute such as this – especially since it probably realizes by now that its pre-sale will be useless to me because Screen Australia will not invest in ‘Chanti’s World’ because I have written emails to you, Liz, that have distressed you. All you had to do 20 months ago was either verify my version of events (in which case this dispute would never have happened) or dispute it and go on record as saying that you never overheard the conversations I claim you overheard – in which case the dispute would never have got off the ground because it would have been my word against the world of four Screen Australia employees. Here is your opportunity to avoid further distress by simply placing on record that you never heard Ross, Julia or Claire admit to not seeing my promo. That’s all. I will retire from the battlefield and admit defeat. If you do not, if you continue to maintain your silence (along with Ross and Claire) I am afraid that my career as a filmmaker takes precedence over whatever distress might be caused to you by my requesting that you provide a simple yes or no answer to my question vis a vis Ross, Julia and Claire admitting that they did not see my promo.

I think it not unreasonable, under the circumstances, to work on the presumption that Screen Australia does not contest my version of events – in which case my complaint was legitimate and Fiona Cameron’s refusal to deal with it inappropriate. It was likewise inappropriate that the office of the Ombudsman chose, in Dec 2010, not to ask any questions at all of Liz Crosby, Julia Overton, Ross Mathews or Claire Jager in the process of ‘investigating’ my complaint. And the only reason why I complained to the Ombudsman at all was because Glen Boreham and the Screen Australia Board supported the right of Screen Australia staff to answer no questions at all and of Fiona Cameron to place on file whatever nonsense she liked – placing the blame for a Screen Australia cockup fairly and squarely on my shoulders.

As I have stated many times, none of this is of any real interest to anyone other than myself. What is of interest (or should be, I think) is what my dispute reveals about the way in which decisions are made within Screen Australia; the way in which a combination of spin and silence is used to avoid SA being subjected to scrutiny of any kind. On the various occasions that Encore has asked questions of Screen Australia the response has invariably been along the lines of ‘No comment.’ This is an organization that pays lip service only to the precepts of transparency and accountability. It goes out of its way to keep its machinations as secret as possible and to discourage scrutiny. My dispute with Screen Australia is merely, in microcosm, symptomatic of the macrocosmic problems inherent in the way our peak film funding body is administered – as many other film producers and other filmmakers will attest in private.

Two days ago I wrote to the Screen Australia Board again (19th Sept), fully cognizant of the fact that it is in a tricky position now. To reverse its decision to ban me would raise questions regarding the validity of the ban in the first place.

Dear Members of the Screen Australia Board

On 9th May, Ruth Harley circulated to you all a draft letter in which she alleged that I had harassed, intimidated and placed members of Screen Australia staff at risk. She was not only suggesting that I be effectively banned as a filmmaker but wanted to change Screen Australia’s Terms of Trade in order to make the ban legally possible. To the best of my knowledge Ruth did not present the Board with any evidence of the offenses she accused me of.

You will be aware that I have lodged a Statement of Claim in the Supreme Court of NSW, asserting that Ruth Harley defamed me when she published this draft letter - the contents of which the Board appears to have accepted at face value.

Will the Board have the humility to admit that it has made a mistake based on false information provided to it by Ruth Harley? We shall see!

That Ruth’s draft letter to you is dated 9th May and her letter to me dated 10th May suggests that there was no discussion between Board members before the momentous and unprecedented decision was made to effectively terminate my career as an Australian filmmaker.

I need not provide here a blow by blow description of how we got to this point. It is all there on my blog. However, given that Elizabeth Grintston has cited my email to Liz Crosby last week as evidence of the offenses for which I have been banned, questions arise:

- Does the Board believe that the verbs ‘to intimidate’ and ‘to distress’ can be conflated such that their meanings are more or less interchangeable?

- Is my email to Liz Crosby one that any reasonable person would construe (given the context of this ongoing dispute) to be intimidating or one that places her at any kind of risk?

I am leaving ‘harassing’ out of this equation since the word is so vague in meaning in the context of my dispute with Screen Australia. Any correspondence that challenges the status quo within Screen Australia could be considered ‘harassment’ – just as any questions put to any pubic servants or senior bureaucrat that they refuse to answer can be considered a form of harassment. A dangerous precedent!

As for the notion that I have placed members of Screen Australia staff at risk, did it occur to any of you, when you read Ruth’s 9th May draft letter, to ask, “At risk of what?” No, you gave Ruth the rubber stamp she was looking for in less than 24 hours. Is this the way the Board makes decisions as important as effectively terminating a filmmaker’s career? Did it occur to any of you to ask why the decision to ban me needed to be made in such haste?

If, on reflection, you accept the proposition that distressing a member of Screen Australia staff is quite different from intimidating them, the question arises:

Would the Board have banned me if Ruth’s allegation had been that I had merely distressed members of her staff with my correspondence?”

I do not wish and have certainly not set out to cause distress to anyone. What I have done is to continue to fight for my right to have a legitimate complaint dealt with on the basis of facts and not spin. It took me 20 months of asking, two FOI requests and one complaint to the Information Commissioner, for instance, before Screen Australia finally released to me the correspondence in which, Fiona Cameron asserted back in Nov 2010, I made it clear that I felt ‘Chanti’s World’ had been greenlit. Have any of you looked at these recently released letters? Did you find in them any evidence that I believed ‘Chanti’s World’ had been greenlit? If not, then what do you make of Fiona’s assertions to that effect of Nov 2010? I have been insisting for more than 20 months that the ‘greenlit correspondence’ did not exist and now that it is clear that it didn’t, what are the consequences? Is Fiona Cameron hauled across the coals for having played fast and loose with the truth? No, it is I who have been banned for having vigorously advocated on my own behalf for 20 months – my advocacy involving, amongst other things, writing my email of last week to Liz Crosby.

Before the Board accepts Elizabeth Grinston’s assertion that my email is aggressive and intimidating, why not ask Liz Crosby the questions I have been asking for 20 months; questions that neither Liz nor anyone else at Screen Australia has been prepared to answer. The reason is that honest answers from Liz would reveal that it is me who is the victim of Screen Australia’s incompetence in not dealing with my 2010 complaint appropriately, not members of Screen Australia’s staff who are victims of my intimidation.

best wishes

If past experience is anything to go by, the Board will neither acknowledge receipt of my 19th Sept letter nor respond to it in any way. However, being an optimist at heart, I would be delighted to be surprised – even if the Board comes out with a statement to the effect that, “Yes, James, we agree with Dr Harley that you have intimidated, harassed and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff and stand by our 9th May decision.”


  1. The real tragedy here is not the lack of transparency and accountability at Screen Australia (though this is problematic) but the fact that Ruth Harley has surrounded herself with such lacklustre talent – a combination of bureaucrats who have been in their positions for much too long and procedural sticklers who are more concerned with ticks in boxes than with the quality of the ideas that film producers, directors and writers might have who may not be able to put ticks in all the right boxes. The ticks-in-boxes mentality does not apply however to filmmakers this clique of bureaucrats wants to support. The rule book is thrown out the window then and replaced by the whimsical decisions of a handful of bureaucrats whose lack of creative judgement is borne out by the poor quality of so many films that they have, to quote Fiona Cameron, ‘greenlit’. This clique can green light as many failures as they like year in year out and never be held accountable by Harley or the Board. Harley is the problem. A competent Chief Executive would get rid of the second-raters and replace them with a new set of bureaucrats whose jobs would be on the line the moment they acted in a way that was lacking in transparency. As for the Guidelines these could be relaxed by a new Chief Executive or, if this is not possible, at least administered in the same way for all filmmakers and not applied only to those whom the new clique may wish to sideline.

  2. James, you’ve lost your battle, its time to retire from the field with grace and dignity and stop wasting your time in pursuit of a lost cause. It is clear to us all that Screen Australia has become an organization corrupted by Ruth Harley’s incompetence and that Rachel Perkins, the Screen Australia Board, Simon Crean and the Ombudsman are not going to come to your rescue. Harley will be gone soon and as long as Cameron doesn’t take over her job (God forbid!) a new CE will certainly overturn Harley’s ban if he or she bothers to look at the facts.

    1. The war is not over yet; the fat lady has not yet sung. Screen Australia’s victory to date arises from its refusal to even engage in the battle, which would involve answering questions and dealing with facts that are beyond dispute. Screen Australia’s tactic (above and beyond the Humpty Dumpty redefining of ‘distressed’ to mean ‘intimidated’) is to ignore me in the hope that I will eventually run out of steam and that no-one is reading my blog. I still have plenty of steam and plenty of followers – no doubt fellow filmmakers interested not so much in the details of my dispute as in anticipating who is going to cave in first, me or Screen Australia. Will Screen Australia be successful in having Ricketson’s defamation claim thrown out of court or will the court allow his case to proceed? If the former, Screen Australia’s victory will be Phyrric, won on a legal technicality. If the latter, Screen Australia’s counsel will at some point have to argue in the Supreme Court of NSW that distressing correspondence is the same as intimidating correspondence and articulate SA's Humpty Dumpty definition of ‘at risk’. I look forward to this part of the proceedings.