On 10 September 2020 the management of iTWire magazine received a threatening letter from Clayton Utz, a major Sydney law firm acting on behalf of the Australian Computer Society.
The letter complained about the series of articles written by Graeme Philipson in online newsletter iTWire (www.itwire.com) about the Australian Computer Society, published between December 2019 and August 2020.
The letter claimed Philipson’s articles were defamatory, and demanded that iTWire:
- publish no more ‘defamatory’ articles about the ACS, written by Philipson or anybody else.
- publish a written apology for Philipson’s ‘biased and unfair’ reporting (and that the ACS approve the apology before publication).
- remove from the iTWire website all the articles Philipson has written on the subject of the ACS.
Philipson is astonished by the letter. “It is incredible stuff. Talk about shooting the messenger. ACS wants to erase the whole historical record. That’s how Stalin used to operate.”
The letter took exception to an article Philipson wrote on 20 August 2020, headlined ‘Invisible man Johnson still at ACS’. It says the article ‘conveys imputations’ that:
- ACS is concerned only with making money.
- ACS ignores its members.
- ACS is so concerned with making money it fails to serve its members.
- ACS refuses to communicate to its members information concerning its operations that is of importance to its members.
“It’s drawing long bow to draw those conclusions from the article I wrote,” says Philipson. “They appear not to have read what I actually said.”
What Philipson said
The passage the ACS took exception to is quoted out of context in the lawyer’s letter:
‘ … the organisation is bleeding members and is propped up by fees from its monopoly of accreditation of overseas IT practitioners, who are called ‘members’ in the bloated figures the Society quotes., but who have no voting rights.
‘Professional membership has almost halved over the last decade. The Rescue Our ACS group is justifiably concerned about the current procedural problems. They are concerned with the prospect of an inappropriate constitution being bluffed through because opponents of the proposal are not permitted to communicate with the membership.
‘They are also very concerned about the decline in professional membership. This has arisen because so many members, many of them senior industry figures, have left because of the Management Committee’s attempt to change ACS from a society of computer professionals — with a strong focus on member services — to a commercial organisation that has little interest in members and no need to serve them.’
The letter ends with a threat:
“Should it be necessary for ACS to take any further steps to protect its reputation as a result of the Article and any of the articles you have published (as well as any future articles), ACS will be forced to pursue a more serious course.”
“This is outrageous,” says Philipson. “But I cannot put iTWire at risk. I have resigned from the position of Senior Associate Editor and I have removed all the articles from iTWire’s website.
“I hope that relieves iTWire’s management from the burden of fighting this matter. iTWire is a small company that cannot afford the time or the money that would be needed to defend the threatened action, even though the accusations made in the letter are baseless.
“I will fight this myself,” he says. “I have a strong sense of justice and I will not to be silenced. I am confident of my ability to see this through, and I am certainly not intimidated by ACS and their outlandish shoot-the-messenger behaviour.”
Articles now on Philipson’s website
Philipson has reposted all his articles in a new section on his personal website, at www.philipson.info/acs, and will write new articles on his website’s blog.
“It won’t get as wide a readership,” he says, “but it will still be on the historical record. To not keep them online is to let the bullies win, and that is not my style.
“I am simply not going to take this shit. I will publish my articles, past and future, on my website and also provide the source material that supports them.”
Philipson says the letter amply proves the point that many people have made about the ACS’s unconscionable behaviour and incredible arrogance.
“The letter said that I was acting out of malice, an absurd claim. It is a very poor letter, badly written, clumsily constructed and illogically argued. You would think an expensive law firm would do better, but Clayton Utz consistently sets a low bar.”
He was particularly contemptuous of the firm’s role in the matter. “Clayton Utz likes to think itself as one of Australia’s top law firms, but it was the advisor to ACS during the ill-fated attempt to turn the society into a company last year.
“The many irregularities in the process were highlighted by the judge in the December court case, which ACS lost and which cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. This was paid of course to Clayton Utz, the very people who endorsed and encouraged their behaviour. Their advice at every turn was faulty. It is incredible that ACS still retains these people.”
A long history
Philipson is a long time IT journalist and market researcher. He is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime services to IT journalism and was founder of the respected MIS magazine in the 1990s. He was also founding editor of the ACS’s current magazine, Information Age. He has taken a particular interest in the ACS case since its abortive attempt to change its Constitution in 2019.
“I initially attempted to be objective, but I became increasingly frustrated with ACS’s refusal to answer my questions or engage with me, and their truly astonishing arrogance, which is now on display again.
“The ACS letter questions my professionalism and claims I have used my articles to promote my personal interests, though it does not say what these might be. It accuses me of the dastardly crime of using ‘emotive language’, and of parading opinion as fact.
“I have published a couple of opinion pieces on the matter, clearly labelled as such, but I made every attempt to be objective in my articles. I consistently sought ACS’s view, but was continually fobbed off. I shall continue to write about the matter and I will continue to concentrate on the facts, which speak for themselves.
“My primary aim throughout has been to put all of the ACS’s behaviour on the record, because few other journalists have been reporting on it.”
In recent years Philipson has become Australia’s foremost historian of the IT industry. In 2016 the ACS itself commissioned him to write a history of the Australian computer industry, and he is now writing a more extensive history on behalf of the Pearcey Foundation.
“I don’t do a lot of journalism nowadays. It doesn’t pay very well. All that I have written about ACS and I have done in my own time. iTWire did not pay me, nor did anyone else. I just thought it important that that this be properly chronicled.”
The letter from Clayton Utz accused Philipson of aligning himself with the opinions and interests of the ‘Rescue our ACS’ group, led by Dr Roger Clarke. “I sympathise with many of the group’s aims,” says Philipson, “but as an observer it is not appropriate that I belong to it.”
Philipson says he will continue to cover the ACS, as he believes its behaviour is of interest and concern to many in the industry.
“I, the Rescue our ACS group, and many other unaligned critics are trying to salvage ACS’s tarnished reputation, not destroy it. ACS management doesn’t seem to realise that we are on the side of ACS and its members.
“Setting their legal goons on me reeks of desperation. It is the cowardly behaviour of the bully. I will not be bullied. What I’ve been writing is not defamatory, it is the truth. By singling me out for legal action, while others who have been much stronger in their criticism have been left alone, ACS will achieve exactly the opposite of what they intend.
“Their vindictive and deeply stupid behaviour means that I will work all that harder to ensure that ACS management is brought to account for the many mistakes it has made, and that the reforms the organisation so desperately needs, and that the Australian computer industry so fervently desires, are enacted.
“It is ACS that is being malicious, not me.”