The long running QUT dispute over the sacking of two academics seems to be over with an out of court settlement. Courier Mail article “QUT academic brawl ended by settlement”
It seems to me however that there are 3 issues that marked this affair which remain unresolved. These are…
1/ attitudes towards disability,
2/ attitudes towards free speech and
3/ The allegations that Michael Noonan forged signatures on release forms for Aboriginal people he filmed.
1/ Attitudes to disability.
The original flashpoint of this controversy was the criticism of Michael Noonan’s film work with people with intellectual disabilities. This criticism has continued and none of the critics have changed their tune. However Noonan’s film “Unlikely Travellers” has now been widely praised for its representation of people with disability since it was released. Similarly the footage presented to Noonan’s QUT PhD confirmation hearing that was released to the Courier Mail has received almost unanimous praise, the exception of course is the issues of permission raised about the Aboriginal woman in his footage, which I will get to soon.
Since the release of “Unlikely Travellers” I have personally written several letters to Queensland Advocacy Incorporated asking them to retract their criticism of Noonan’s film but they have not responded to any of my correspondence.
The Australian Catholic Disability Council continues to criticise the film project as recently as last month, indicating that they are incapable of admitting they were wrong or that they hold a totally repressive attitude towards disability and they are offended by “Unlikely Travellers”, but my guess is they still haven’t seen the film or Noonan’s PhD. rushes and are still commenting in ignorance. Australian Catholic Disability Council speaks out against degrading research project
Noonan’s film is now an international landmark in positive representation of people with intellectual disabilities in the media. His work deserves support and praise but instead this whole affair has demonised Noonan and has never, ever, raised any serious and rational discussion about issues of disability. The ignorant, repressive and patronising attitudes of the criticisms have been reinforced and largely unchallenged in this whole episode. The so called “speaking up for the disabled” has created one more brick in the wall that contains people living with disabilities.
2/ Free speech issues.
The academics and their supporters called for Michael Noonan’s film project to be stopped, for the screening of his movie “Unlikely Travellers” at the Brisbane International Film festival to be stopped and for the issue of what universities ought and ought not to teach to be determined by the federal court, a course of action that has been thankfully aborted through the out of court settlement – all in the name of free speech.
Nothing is black and white, even the most ardent anti-censorship libertarian realises that there are times to censor. The extreme case is snuff movies but there are less dramatic compromises such as racist or sexist vilification and exploitation of the vulnerable. Many libertarians accept the need for moderation and control of the media in some areas.
However any call for a film or any other project to be censored needs to have a good reason, a rational explanation of why its production or broadcast directly exploits or oppresses somebody. The calls to censor Michael Noonan’s work was not based on any such explanation. The criticism was based on false information about the capacity of the on screen performers and an academic critique that it was an example of post modernist ammoralism.
It seems absurd to me that such a campaign of censorship could have existed under the banner of a free speech campaign.
This campaign was perhaps the most significant parochial left wing campaign that Brisbane has seen for decades, it defined the evolution ( or slowed the devolution) of that strange phenomenon known as “the left”. Yet this campaign went from start to finish with absolutely no discussion or exploration of any of the core issues of the campaign. The powerful force of solidarity was corrupted and transformed to a mindless witch hunt and gang mentality relying on personal slur and gossip rather than any intellectual reflection and learning. It was this ignorant gang mentality that justified the call for censorship, not a concern for people with disabilities or the principle of free speech.
3/ Allegations of fraud and issues of filming Aboriginal people.
Firstly, I was at a meeting with Ted Watson (representing the Aboriginal woman in Noonan’s rushes), Michael Noonan and John Hart (The producer of “Unlikely Travellers”). At this meeting Noonan produced to Ted (and myself) signed releases from The Aboriginal woman and her husband. The signatures on Noonan’s release forms were the same as those on Ted’s documents of authorisation and complaint (in my opinion with no expertise in forensic handwriting analysis). I have never doubted Noonan’s honesty on this matter. At this meeting the issues of dealing with Aboriginal people and protocols was discussed at length and Noonan was genuinely disturbed by May’s concerns and has apologised to her.
However it seems that the issues of representation of Aboriginal people in the media were always only secondary to the legal defense of the two academics in their struggle with QUT. The complaints and allegations were administered as an addendum to the other legal actions. Now that the QUT issues are resolved what will happen to the the conflicts and controversy that has been stirred up about Aboriginal representation, in particular the interests of Aboriginal individuals at the centre of this? Will the issues of Aboriginality now conveniently disappear along with the issues of disability?
In conclusion I will recount my own involvement in this. As a long term proponent of free speech and as a person who has many connections to disability I was particularly interested in this issue. Initially I supported the academics but had not even read their criticism of the movie, I just assumed it to be valid. The fact that academics could be punished for being critical was an obvious attack on free speech.
However, somewhat belatedly, I read the critical article “Philistines at the gate” and was very disturbed by the patronising, moralising Roman Catholic attitude to disability expressed by the two authors. I had seen nothing of Noonan’s work but I knew the criticism was very wrong. This debate between humanisation vs. protection of people with intellectual disabilities was, and still is, an important debate to be had by the mainstream society – as it is the mainstream that embodies the attitudes of repression and exclusion. I wrote the following critique of “Philistines at the Gate”“Laughing at the disabled, power perception and prejudice
As I surfed the net looking for more information I discovered that complaints had been made to the Adult Guardian, asking them to investigate Noonan’s “exploitation” of people with impaired capacity. I was outraged at this point. Regular Paradigm Oz readers will know that my family has been at war with the Adult Guardian who are a secret totalitarian agency that has complete power of peoples lives and can intervene and smash families with no accountability structure at all. Background on the Adult Guardian
I was absolutely disgusted that people who mouthed rhetoric of freedom and human rights could be appealing to a fascist institution to intervene in the lives of people who are perfectly happy and supported.
Somewhere along the line I made contact with Michael Noonan and he gave me a copy of Unlikely Travellers. I was very impressed by his treatment of disability issues and realised that not only was the criticism of him based on a repressive ideological framework, but his work was extremely significant to changing mainstream attitudes about disability. I wrote this review of “Unlikely Travellers”
The campaign to support the suspended academics continued throughout to demonise Noonan, they never gave up attacking him for being an exploitative scum. This has disillusioned me terribly for I now have absolutely no respect for the Brisbane “left”. I was arrested at a land rights protest at the age of 16 – The concerned Christians arrests in Queens Park. I was arrested countless times marching, speaking and leafleting against Joh. From that time until very recently I identified as part of the “left” movement. But no more! What that movement has become is nothing more than a nest of malicious gossips, a petty and ignorant social clique that has nothing to offer the crises and issues of the modern world.