Monday, September 21, 2009

From the outside looking in

I am beholden to my daemons to presage this article by stating for the record that I am usually wrong.

Considering the state of law reform in this country, and the moral turpitude of many of this country's self-appointed stewards, it surprises me little that Bob Ellis has finally decided to sue the playwright Louis Nowra over his June 2009 article (one could hardly call it a review), Making a case for the unexamined life. 

Though the article caused quite a stir at the time, the whole thing passed me by largely due to the fact that I only read The Australian if trapped in a lift, and anyway Bob Ellis holds little interest for me either as a man or a writer.

As far as I can make out, however, Louis Nowra has a problem in regards to the article in question, and that problem is that he opens with the seed of a slowly flowering contradiction. The only time Bob Ellis has impinged on my life, his fateful article begins, was when I was in a solicitor's office.

Not the most musical of openings, but I won't quibble over syntax here. What is important is that Nowra goes on to relate how Bob Ellis did not in fact impinge on him personally in said office, but rather via the sage words of said solicitor, who found it pertinent to remind Nowra that Ellis had shifted the goalposts for publishers in Australia after passing off a piece of lewd gossip as salacious fact and landing his publishers in court. Nowra's solicitor was cautioning him against making the same mistake with his own book. Even though the stories were true, he said they would have to go unless I could back them up factually.

Thus by this simple device, the reader is led to believe that Nowra is somewhat of a disinterested observer in the one-man circus that is Bob Ellis, the Aussie auteur.

Perhaps Nowra should have listened more closely to his solicitor, for later in the same piece he relates how  he and Ellis in fact played in the same cricket team.

Given Ellis's occasional misadventures with the facts, I was interested to read about something of which I had a first-hand knowledge (good to see that grammar improving, Louis). He says he played for a Sydney suburban cricket team called the Metros for more than 10 years from the late 70s. During the same period I played in the same team for three years and I only saw him turn up once (my emphasis).

I was going to quote more of this passage, but I fear doing so may land me in the same hot water as Louis Nowra.

Now, either Nowra's earlier statement that he was only ever impinged on by Ellis in the abstract is at best an obfuscation, or the Metros are one seriously dysfunctional cricketing family, or, more to the point, Nowra failed to heed his solicitor's advice and is relating in Murdoch print a piece of club house gossip as though it were a fact he could personally verify.

If read in this light, Nowra appears guilty of mixed messages. Either he knows Ellis well enough to while away a Saturday afternoon with him on a cricket field, or he knows him only as I do - as a name and a professional bugbear - and is happy to print in one place what he dare not print in another.

Now, let it be re-iterated quite clearly for the record here that I am no fan of Bob Ellis the writer or the man. He strikes me from a distance as that stamp of boomer male against whom I have been struggling all my creative life, and without whom the cultural life of this country would probably be none the poorer.

But read in the light of this apparent contradiction, Louis Nowra's article reads less like the "pure gold" of James Bradley's opinion ( and more like the vituperative snarl of one grand old dog at another through the gilded mesh of Sydney gliterati. That Bob Ellis' reply to this article only helps to underscore many of Nowra's points about him does nothing to alleviate the impression that he has not been totally forthcoming.  Passing acquaintance, after all, does not a passing stranger make.

But why does any of this matter?

Because so strict are the defamation laws in this state that, as Richard Ackland put it so succinctly in a recent article about New South Wales Defamation Law Reform,

When journalists see the word "reasonable" as the defining legal test they may as well pull out a gun and shoot themselves.....a journalist may think it "reasonable" to make 10 phone calls to check a story. The judge will say, "why didn't you make 11?"

Ackland regards this as a purely mainstream media problem, but as the recent use of NSW Defamation Law by a US citizen to sue a UK blogger proves, it is a concern for cyberspace as well.

No comments: