A discussion of contemporary issues in media ethics, with olives and a twist. Made with only the freshest ingredients, shaken, stirred and poured over ice. I should also mention that I do like the odd, occasional martini. Bombay Sapphire gin and Lillet, dry and plenty of salty olives. Welcome to this cocktail of journalism and alcohol. A fine combination!

Friday, 25 May 2007

MacLennan and Hookham - more on the matter

I have copied the contents of an email that's circulating among supporters of John and Garry. I haven't had time to do much editing on this, but it's important that it's out there. I'll come back later and clean this up. Right now I'm off to a meeting (one of three this afternoon). Why do we schedule hard work on Friday afternoons, it is afterall, almost martini time.

Message begins here:

Dear Visible Evidence Colleagues,

I'm writing to you because I believe that, as a group, we are deeply concerned about ethical practices in documentary and non-fiction filmmaking. I'm hoping, therefore, that you will be able to help me.

I'm also writing because my colleague, Gary MacLennan and I are in a major dispute with our university and are facing charges of "serious misconduct". It is very likely that we will be suspended without pay within ten days.

The background to this is that I teach film and television at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. A couple of weeks ago, my colleague, Dr Gary MacLennan and I attended a PhD Confirmation Seminar at our university. In Australia, PhD candidates are required to present a public seminar (which is advertised broadly over the campus) wherein they outline the scope and intentions of their research and show the progress they have made. This is usually done after a year in the PhD program.

On the basis of this presentation, a panel of four academics decides whether the candidate may proceed with the program and the candidature is then confirmed. If there are doubts about the scope of the work or the methodology or anything else, confirmation is withheld until the panel is satisfied that the candidate can now fulfil what is required.

On this particular occasion, the candidate, Michael Noonan's thesis title was " Laughing at the Disabled: Creating comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains." The thesis abstract explained that "Laughing at the Disabled is an exploration of authorship and exploitation in disability comedy, the culmination of which will be the creation and production [for sale] of a six-part comedy series featuring two intellectually disabled personalities. The show, entitled Darren and James: Downunder Mystery Tour, will be aimed squarely at the mainstream masses; its aim to confront, offend and entertain."

The candidate then went on to screen clips from his work in progress. My colleague, Dr MacLennan and I were horrified by both the material we saw and the intention behind the "research". We witnessed two intellectually disabled men being ridiculed and mocked for the purpose of "mass entertainment". At the seminar, we publicly expressed our concern and indicated that we were extremely offended. At this point we would have expected the panel to invite us to privately discuss our reservations with them but this never happened. The panel met in camera and then only much later did we discover that the candidate had been confirmed.

We used the official university channels to complain but the matter was ignored. [MH At this point is an excerpt from the piece that appeared in The Australian and at Public Opinion Online, I have edited this out as the text is in a post below on Ethical Martini]

The university's response to this criticism has been most severe and we were then accused, in the press, by the Assistant Dean (Research) of "misrepresentation" and "abuse" of the PhD student. What follows is an excerpt from the Assistant Dean's letter.

Hookham and MacLennan were not part of the formal committees that have ruled that Noonan's study will now progress to completion. Given their distance from these deliberations, it is neither reasonable nor acceptable for them to judge their fellow academics as being indifferent to the belief that it is morally wrong to laugh at the afflicted. Their fellow academics are just as sensitive to such matters and recognise that guarantees are in place to ensure that everyone involved will be treated justly and with integrity.

In this regard there is particular concern over the abuse of our PhD candidate, who has been exposed to national press scrutiny based on selective information and out-of-context misrepresentation.

We are also being intimidated and have every reason to believe that our careers are under threat despite the fact that we are both tenured members of faculty. I have taught here for 8 years and Gary has been here at QUT (Queensland University of Technology) for over 32 years.

Yesterday we both received a hand delivered letter charging us with "serious misconduct" and telling us that we will probably be suspended without pay.

We have discussed this matter with a mainstream disability advocacy group, Queensland Advocacy Group (QAI), which is fully behind us. Again, I am including this documentation for your interest.

What follows is an excerpt from QAI's letter)

"We write in relation to the reports in the Australian newspaper on Wednesday 11th April. We are alarmed by the recent confirmation of PhD candidate Michael Noonan and endorsement of his project titled "Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains" by the Creative Industries Faculty. This project is a very ethically sensitive one and it should not proceed without external scrutiny, ethical review by a panel including those knowledgeable in disability ethics and development of stringent ethical safeguards.

Our concerns with this project are many. The abstract for the confirmation seminar itself suggests a number of potential ethical pitfalls. Exploring authorship and exploitation in disability comedy is a legitimate academic aim, however it is not legitimate to explore this by reproducing relationships which are exploitative, by representing vulnerable people with disability in offensive ways or by exposing them to public mockery by the "mainstream masses". Further, the abstract makes the fallacious assertion that there is a "fine line between laughing at and laughing with". To claim this in the context of reactions to people with disability is to be ignorant of the powerlessness of people with disability and the extremely detrimental impact of historical social constructions of disability.

To demean people with disability by portraying them as inept is not just offensive or "confronting". Instead, the representation of people with disability (particularly very vulnerable people with intellectual and developmental disability) as objects of ridicule is a form of disability vilification. It offends the right of people with disability to be treated as citizens worthy of equal moral respect. Reports of the "film in progress" (shown at the confirmation seminar) suggests that the film-maker has effectively exploited the innate characteristics of the young men's disabilities for the purpose of others' entertainment, and, ultimately, for the goal of commercial gain. The film-maker may claim to be "pushing boundaries" but the pervasive devaluation of people with disability and their historical confinement to negative social roles, including that of an "object of mockery" is hardly ground-breaking. Instead such constructions reinvest in harmful damaging social stereotypes. These stereotypes construct the person with disability as "other", non-human and diminish what the "mainstream masses" see as their worth and social value. These views then justify widespread social neglect, segregation and other threats to the protections afforded to valued citizens…

Kevin Cocks


Queensland Advocacy Inc.

2005 Australian Human Rights Medal Recipient and QUT Distinguished Alumni

Dr Lisa Bridle

Clinical Co-Ordinator

Queensland Centre for Intellectual and Developmental Disability "

The Vice-Chancellor has only recently replied to this letter. Herein he states:

The Project has already been the subject of an ethical clearance in accordance with the University's ethical clearance requirements which are based on well established principles. In the circumstances, there is no basis for requiring the Project to be further reviewed for ethical clearance by external parties as suggested by your letter.

The university is not in a position to provide you with access to the student's work in the film shown at the confirmation seminar.

I think there are two issues here. First, we feel that we have a duty to advocate for the disabled. Secondly our right to do so should be guaranteed under the right to free speech and also under academic freedom. Unfortunately Australia does not have a Bill of Rights and there is not a strong tradition here of academics defending their rights to free speech.

We believe that the "Laughing at the Disabled" project violates the most fundamental ethical protocols of our profession as film and video makers. We do not think filmmakers should exploit people who are unable to defend themselves. Above all, we abhor the fact that the university is doing this for profit.

We are also shocked by Queensland University of Technology's response to our criticism of this project. We are really and truly under attack and our only offence has been that we defended two young men unable to defend themselves. In the process though we believe we have also defended the ideals of a real university. These include academic freedom and a pastoral relationship with the wider community. We think that any attack on these ideals indicates a severe crisis in the university and we believe that, in the words of Allan Bloom, "a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis (we may) face."

Because of this, I would like to ask you to support us in our attempts to have this project stopped. To this end, I am asking you to forward this letter to all concerned academics asking them to stand by us. We have received support from other academics and we are very thankful for that.

What follows is an excerpt from Prof Michael Rabiger's letter in support of us:

The ethical issues raised by Dr. Hookham and Dr. MacLennan are ones that impinge on anyone documenting anyone else. The greater the imbalance of power and competency between the two, the more acute and disturbing these issues can become.

Just as the Aboriginal community no longer permits documentaries about them by non-Aboriginals, only the handicapped have the expertise to decide what is on the margins of acceptability as public utterance on their behalf. They seem excluded thus far from QIT's deliberations, which appear to legitimize a return to the days of laughing at the village idiot.

Judging from the evidence I have, Queensland Institute of Technology has made a monumental miscalculation in giving its blessing to the unfortunate Michael Noonan's thesis. It has compounded its original mistakes by circling the wagons on the grounds that a thesis committee had passed the work. Institutions and institutional committees make mistakes—that's not unusual. Now to set this difficult situation right, I suggest you use your authority to:

  1. Limit the widespread infamy this case is causing by immediately opening the QIT's process up to the steps advocated by Queensland Advocacy Incorporated, or any other nationally respected advocacy group for the handicapped.
  2. Clarify QIT's commitment to free speech and academic freedom among tenured faculty.
  3. Rescind Michael Noonan's confirmation pending the formation of a panel of nationally respected ethicists to advise on the purposes, means, and likely outcome of his "six-part comedy series featuring two intellectually disabled personalities….entitled 'Darren and James: Downunder Mystery Tour…aimed squarely at the mainstream masses; its aim to confront, offend and entertain." In the event they can find no redeeming features, compensate Mr. Noonan by assisting him in every way to find an alternative doctoral thesis subject."

We hope that you will then write to:

The Hon Julie Bishop MP
Minister for Education, Science and Training


Indicating support for us and requesting a Federal enquiry into how this project "Laughing at the Disabled" could have received ethical clearance.

I would appreciate it if they could also copy these emails to me and my colleague on:




In the subject heading please write: "Laughing at the Disabled".

Finally I should point out that in the article we wrote, we were critical of post-structuralism. Many colleagues might disagree with what we said. That is fine but I would expect them to defend our right to say these things.

Thank you for the opportunity to write to you at length. I am truly grateful and I would welcome your assistance with this matter.

Yours faithfully,

John Hookham PhD


Anonymous said...


I just wanted to post a comment in favour of the two lecturers John and Gary who have now been suspended from QUT. I'm very disappointed that the university has taken such action.. ! I hope a similar thing does not occur in other universities when academics dare to criticise (imagine that!). As a journalism/communications student at UQ I am hopeful!

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to post in favour of QUT. Although this blog clearly discloses its partisan position (ie we are told that the blog author is a mate of the two accused), it is nevetheless disturbing to see that zero regard is given to the simple fact that their suspension was not based on their questioning of the ethical clearance committee's decisions, but on the inappropriate way in which they decided to pursue that cause.. eg in the national press, where, despite their claims of being disempowered, they clearly had more power than the candidate and they abused that power.

Moreover, there were other matters of complaint around this, none of which are mentioned here, because, as others have said, it gets in the way of a good hard luck story. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story my friend.