Friday, May 9, 2014

Is it a good idea to ban screenwriters? Letter to Minister for the Arts, George Brandis 7th May 2014

Having recently had my 40,000th page hit since my dispute with Screen Australia began in earnest 2 years ago (and my ban began), I ponder the pros and cons of making the twists and turns of my battle with Screen Australia available to any and everybody interested, on my blog – a topic worthy of a blog entry in itself when time permits.

I am surprised by the number of people who visit my ‘accidental blog’ but whether or not I will achieve anything as a result maintaining it is an open question just now.

I am, by temperament, attracted to the idea of total transparency – leading, hopefully, to accountability on the part of those who, by dint of their being public servants, should be accountable for how and why they spend tax-payer dollars as they do. To pursue the path I have does not, needless to say, win me any friends within Screen Australia or the Ministry for the Arts. Such is life!

I should add that filmmakers should also be accountable for how they spend the money bestowed upon them, via funding bodies, by the Australian public. Filmmakers who fail, time and again, to tell stories that resonate with their intended audience, should not be rewarded with a continuous stream of funding – regardless of whatever close (in either a personal or professional sense)  relationship they might have with those in a funding body who control the purse strings.

This objective (an obvious one, in my view) could be achieved by a process of ongoing assessments of the assessors – be they Project Managers or ‘external’. Why should an assessor, an important creative decision maker within Screen Australia, retain his or her job, if they consistently fail to predict which projects are going to attract an audience –either in Australia or overseas? 

The Hon George Brandis MP
Minister for the Arts
Commonwealth Parliament Offices
Level 361 Eagle St
Brisbane QLD 4000                                                                                       

7th May 2014

Dear Senator Brandis

You champion the right of bigots to express their opinions in public, but do you champion the right of  members of the public to express their less-than-complimentary opinions about public servants in public?  More specifically, will you champion my right to be vocal in my public criticisms of senior management of Screen Australia and the Screen Australia board?

Or have I,  in my criticisms,  crossed sufficiently far across the line of what is acceptable to warrant being banned? If so what was it I wrote in an email or letter prior to May 2012 that led the SA board to ban me for having intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff? Have I, ever once, used a swear word, for instance? Have I ever issued even the mildest or subtlest of threats? Have I, ever once, given any member of Screen Australia’s staff reason to believe that if they ran into me on a dark night, or at a film event of some kind, that I would attack them physically or verbally? The answer is, as I am sure you know by now is ‘no’. Not guilty. And yet the ban on me continues? Why?

Leaving aside the fact that I have done nothing to warrant being banned, what positive outcomes has the ban led to? I have experienced the downside but what it the upside as far as Screen Australia is concerned? Imagine this:

I have written a terrific screenplay; one that has the potential to make audiences laugh, cry, think, feel challenged and confronted by and leave the cinema feeling that they have had a rich and rewarding cinematic experience. What is achieved by the Screen Australia board refusing to allow anyone at Screen Australia, including Chief Executive Graeme Mason, to read my screenplay? What would happen if Graeme were to defy the board? Imagine this:

Graeme flips open the cover of Ricketson’s screenplay, oblivious to the risk he is placing himself at in doing so. He finds that nothing untoward happens to him as he reads. Mmmm, he thinks to himself, not bad. He continues to turn pages (always a good sign) and gets to the end of the screenplay thinking, “Not bad. Not bad at all. This has potential.”

Dare Graeme admit to the board that he has read the screenplay? Could such an act of defiance lead to his being castigated by the board? To his dismissal as Chief Executive?

Imagine further. Graeme confronts the board:

“I have read one of Ricketson’s screenplays. It is good, written to a high standard. He is a screenwriter of a caliber that should be encouraged by Screen Australia, not banned. I have been through the files and, whilst I can find much in the way of criticisms of Screen Australia, I can find no evidence that he intimidated members of Screen Australia staff – unless, that is, the definition of ‘intimidation’ is extended to include the asking of questions that staff do not which to answer. As for the proposition that he has placed staff at risk, this is, as you all know, nonsense. How can the reading of a screenplay place the reader at risk? Unless you have evidence of which I am unaware, you owe him an apology.”

Graeme Mason is either his own boss, searching out quality projects to develop, to nurture, or his quest for these is hampered by a board that believes certain filmmakers deserve to be punished (for whatever reason takes their fancy) whilst others deserve to be rewarded – for reasons obvious to those of us in Australian film who are familiar with the identities of both successful applicants and those who decide to support this filmmaker and not that one.

Getting back to my hypothetical terrific screenplay, Australian film certainly does not benefit if such a film cannot be made because it cannot be read by anyone at Screen Australia. In theory a film can be produced without any Screen Australia involvement, but it is not easy .

What about the Screen Australia board – 100% responsible for the continuance of the ban, now that Ruth Harley is no longer calling the shots? Will it give Claudia Karvan, Richard Keddie and Rosemary Blight and other board members a sense of satisfaction to know that they have played a major role in preventing this screenplay being made into an Australian film? And if the board feels justified in forbidding members of Screen Australia’s staff from reading my screenplay, what does this suggest about the priorities of the board? Are these the kinds of board members you want overseeing the production of quality film and TV projects? If so, woe betide Australian film! Such a small-minded and vindictive board is not likely to embark on the kinds of adventurous initiatives required pull Australian film and TV out of the doldrums and propel it into the ranks of those small countries like Australia that regularly captivate the world with the stories they tell – Sweden and Denmark, for instance?

Screen Australia’s ban on me has not stopped me working. It has just stopped me working in Australia. This is not the end of the world. I can live with this. What I cannot live with is the damage done to my reputation by the declaration, made by Ruth Harley and ratified by the board, that I am the kind of person who intimidates and places at risk members of Screen Australia staff. Robust criticism, the asking of difficult questions, does not place staff at risk.

I wonder if you will get to read this letter? Perhaps it will, as with my previous letters, be relegated by Caroline Fulton to the ‘To Be Ignored’ folder. Or handed to a Spin Doctor to deal with in a letter utilizing such statements as, “It is my understanding that the matters you have raised have been adequately addressed and the Minister can see no value in their being canvassed any further…” Etc. To which I will reply, simply: “Evidence please, Minister, of even one instance in which I intimidated or placed at risk a member of Screen Australia’s staff in my correspondence.”

If the board can point to no evidence that I am guilty as charged, the members of the board should be chastised (at the very least) for having rubber stamped Ruth Harley’s ban and, since she left, having kept it in place whilst knowing all along that there is no evidence to support its validity or fairness.

As I have stated countless times now, my being banned is of no real consequence. That the Screen Australia board is able to ban a filmmaker (either officially or unofficially) is, or should be, a matter of concern to you and to all who work in Australian film and TV and who rely on the impartiality of Screen Australia board decisions and it commitment to the precepts of transparency and accountability.

best wishes

James Ricketson

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