27 September 2011

The 'Bully Boy' vs Brisbane Local History

Local historians have a rather quaint image; polite pensioners in cardigans sat in the archives, sifting quietly through 19th-century requisition records for railway department construction projects - and so it should be. But what happens when the practice of not-for-profit local history conflicts with private business interests? Usually, not very much, as the people involved are generally quite sane and rational. Sometimes, however, it can get quite nasty. In my decade of volunteer work with historical societies I have, unfortunately, come across more than my fair share of nasty.

It raised its ugly head again last week when the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, a community group of which I am a member, was attacked by Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim, owner of a small business called Ghost Tours. In some disingenuous online marketing material he had an unnecessary little dig at the FOSBC, saying that his business had been 'under fire' from them.

A couple of members of the public then posted mild criticism on the Ghost Tours Facebook page about the dig at the FOSBC, and both received a nasty cut-and-paste diatribe in reply. Members of the FOSBC were forced to publicly defend themselves and set the record straight on this matter, because if Mr Sim is prepared to send such material to random Facebook posters, who knows how many other people have had the same treatment? The diatribe is reproduced here, and I have highlighted specific comments which I will be dealing with.
"Dear Matt,
Your comment you posted yesterday was removed, along with another persons. Neither of you are long term followers of Ghost Tours, and your comments are made specifically to attack our business. I am happy to furnish you with the details. Tracy Oliveri and Chris Dawson who claim to represent the FOSBC undertook a campaign to have Ghost Tours closed down in 2009. The intention behind this was that they intended on running their own ghost tours through South Brisbane Cemetery using a psychic medium.What is low and wasn't very nice was the way that these people, representing FOSBC, attacked our tourism business. Both of these individuals have been served defamation warnings from Ghost Tours Pty Ltd and myself. Ghost Tours Pty Ltd supports many voluntary organisations, but the FOSBC is not one. Matt, we expect that followers of this newsletter to be supporters of our company and its historical work, not people who clearly are stooges for an aggressive, bullying and intimidating so-called voluntary organisation. Until such time that FOSBC forms into a separate, legally responsible, not-for-profit organisation (which it currently is not) our company will not support this organisation. And frankly we would encourage the public not to support FOSBC either. I assume that you are a stooge for FOSBC. So there is no loss in me making it clear to you that you are not welcome on our facebook page. Please give my regards to Chris and Tracy and remind them that I will just add your comments to the portfolio of material relating to their attempts to defame me and my business.

Here goes then. I will stick to provable facts.

1. Did we try to close down a business so we could set up our own in its place?
Of course not. In early 2009 the FOSBC was approached by a woman interested in conducting not-for-profit 'paranormal investigations' in the South Brisbane Cemetery. Doing these as fundraisers for volunteer heritage projects initially seemed like a good idea, but during the planning process Mr Sim made a range of threats to try and stop them from happening simply because he felt that they threatened his business interests.

Although we were not deterred by his threats, the FOSBC eventually came to the conclusion that the paranormal investigations were probably not appropriate inside a cemetery and dropped the idea. People were buried there to rest in peace, and we would respect that. In fact, the more we looked into what was happening, the clearer it was that cemetery night tour/ghost hunt activities were an unregulated mess of commercial exploitation. The Brisbane City Council (BCC) obviously agreed because they instigated a review and prohibited all cemetery 'ghost hunts'.

At the same time, and in the wake of large-scale 'satanic' vandalism in the Toowong Cemetery, the FOSBC joined with the Friends of Balmoral Cemetery and the Greater Brisbane Cemetery Alliance to lobby the city council and state government to implement cemetery by-laws to help curb vandalism and trespass. Stopping all night tours was a preferred option, certainly for me anyway. We also felt that when it came to deterring nocturnal trespassers, promoting cemeteries as novelty supernatural venues was not helping the situation.

2. Did we want to 'close down' Ghost Tours?
Absolutely not. Cemetery tours are only one part of that business anyway. However, I do think that Ghost Tours should either lift their game or get out of our cemeteries because in my opinion they are:

Far-fetched stories of vampires et al sully the memory of real people buried in cemeteries, and in-tour occult rituals (as Ghost Tours do/did in Toowong Cemetery) clearly violate the spiritual values of a cemetery, where people honour the memory of their loved ones. These tour rituals were supposedly banned after Brisbane City Council found out about them in 2009, but we have evidence that Ghost Tours still conduct them regardless. 

Historically inaccurate
While the ghost stories on these tours are mostly laughable, the historical content of the tours can be questionable, often contradicting the historical record. Protecting the heritage values of a place includes making sure that the History is actually correct. In places like Edinburgh historians have even started doing tours specifically to debunk the misinformation told on the many ghost tours there. But don't just take my word for it. Last week the following review of the South Brisbane Cemetery Ghost Tour appeared in the Courier-Mail:
"The problem with the tour is not the yarns, which, of themselves, probably have enough of the right elements. Moreover both raconteurs are too flat and robotic, so glib that they are unable to breathe atmosphere into their stories. Many of them are flawed, besides. Scene-setting fundamentals such as dates and locations are missing. Accuracy can be wanting." (QWeekend, 24 September 2011)
    Discouraging heritage research and activities
    Mr Sim is openly hostile to other people and organisations conducting cultural heritage activities which he feels might impact upon his personal business interests, and aggressively tries to discourage such activities and research (more on this below).

    The BCC review into cemetery night tours was completed in late 2009 and the outcomes were:
    • Licenses and fees were now required for the right to conduct night tours in BCC cemeteries. 
    • These licenses do not provide licensees with exclusive use of a cemetery. 
    • Tour marketing, content, and tour guide clothing must be deemed appropriate by the BCC. 
    • No 'ghost hunts' allowed (too disrespectful).
    In other words, vindication for much of what the FOSBC had complained about. A lot of inappropriate practices were stamped out, and Ghost Tours would (for the first time ever) be required to pay for access to cemeteries.

    In the wake of the BCC review, the FOSBC commenced not-for-profit Moonlight Tours in 2010, feeling that if night tours were to take place, then we want to raise standards by offering an affordable and historically-accurate product.

    So my reasons for wanting Ghost Tours to either improve or leave our cemeteries was entirely unrelated to the establishment of Moonlight Tours. To say we tried to close down his business in order to do our own ghost tours is patently wrong.

    3. Did we receive warnings for defamation?
    Mr Sim hands out defamation threats like the Easter Bunny hands out chocolate eggs, mainly because he has little grasp of what defamation actually is. He made many defamation threats during this period, and every single so-called 'warning' was so baseless that they were ignored by the several individuals and community groups who received them. The emptiness of these threats is proven by the fact that they were never followed up on. The general standard of the threats is exemplified by his text above, where a person's criticism of his criticism of someone else is somehow 'defamation' by the person he was criticising in the first place!

    4. Is the FOSBC an 'aggressive, bullying and intimidating' organisation?
    What a laugh. The legal records clearly show the 'bullying, intimidation and aggression' nature of Mr Sim.

    After he found out about the planned not-for-profit cemetery tours he made unwanted phone calls on a daily basis to the woman involved, and when she would not return his calls he began leaving messages at her workplace. He was then warned by the police to stop contacting her, but when he did not do so she sought a peace and good behaviour order. In July 2009 Mr Sim appeared before Ipswich Magistrates Court, and although the order was not granted on a technicality (as the complaint had been brought under the wrong section of the law), the presiding magistrate criticised Mr Sim at great length, describing him him as 'arrogant' and a 'bully boy'. He was warned that if he continued with his behaviour he would end up in the Supreme Court charged under the telecommunications act.

    And all this was a result of nothing more a proposed occasional heritage fundraiser...

    There is much more to this, too much to include here in any detail. We received yet more threats when we started our South Brisbane Cemetery Moonlight Tours, and also when Tracey released her book Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery, resulting in Mr Sim having to again be warned off by the police before he would stop. As a result of all this, the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society and the Friends of Balmoral Cemetery all refused to have any further dealings with Mr Sim.

    The email record also clearly shows Mr Sim's belligerent attitude. For example, he wrote to FOSBC secretary Tracey Olivieri to complain about the proposed not-for-profit 'tours':
    "We will seek legal action against any individual, business or company that seeks to damage or destroy our business interests. This is not a threat, aggressive behaviour or harassment. It is a business’ right to defend its commercial interests... those stories and tales told on our ghost tours are copyright and form part of the intellectual and material property of our business operations." (18 June 2009)
    The argument here seems to be that it is illegal to try and compete with Ghost Tours' business (and that he somehow 'owns' ghosts stories). And as he told us in another email, "there is no room in the market place for a rival operator" (15 May 2009).

    The message to Brisbane historians and historical societies is that Cameron 'Jack' Sim thinks you cannot run tours where he runs tours. How many businesses out there have the privilege of a self-proclaimed monopoly?

    5. 'So-called' voluntary organisation?
    The FOSBC is made up entirely of volunteers, so why is Mr Sim implying that the FOSBC is not a volunteer organisation? Like many other volunteer and community groups around Australia, they have chosen not to become an incorporated association. Such a move is of course entirely optional, and the FOSBC volunteers have opted not take on the administrative hassles and expensive costs that come with incorporating. And we certainly don't want to associate ourselves with Mr Sim's activities by accepting his so-called 'support'.

    6. "...we would encourage the public not to support FOSBC"
    I can only presume this comment makes it okay for others to 'encourage the public' not to support Ghost Tours. Such 'encouragement' could take the form of a 'Boycott Ghost Tours' campaign.

    7. "...the portfolio of material relating to their attempts to defame me"
    For the record, we do not know the Facebook commenters. End of story. We don't even know if, like Cameron Sim does, they are using assumed names. It does not make sense to take the comments of complete strangers on Facebook pulling you up for publicly attacking a community group, and then assume they must be associated with that community group before launching bizarre attacks on them.

    Mr Sim needs to accept that there are a lot of people out there who don't like what he does.

    In conclusion...
    As a result of his attempts to stop our not-for-profit fundraisers, Cameron 'Jack' Sim dished out several baseless legal threats, was warned a number of times by the police, and even appeared before Ipswich Magistrate's Court where the magistrate herself described him as a bully and ordered him to stop contacting the complainant.

    On the other hand, Tracey and myself made zero legal threats, were never warned by the police, and so did not appear before courts. I think the record speaks for itself.

    I have gone public with this in order to defend the reputation of the FOSBC and the people in it, including myself, now that it is clear that Mr Sim has been smearing our name and slandering us to others. I have dealt only in provable facts here. Will there be yet more legal threats because of this blog? Maybe, but from now on communication on these matters will be dealt with in the public sphere.

    In the meantime, if you have had a similar experience then please do let us know. We would love to hear from you.

    15 September 2011

    Cleaning Boggo Road

    While the Boggo Road Gaol was closed, the volunteers of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society took it upon themselves to keep it clean.
    In a blog about a recent visit to Boggo Road I wrote that there was 'little difference' in the condition of the place as compared to when I last saw it in 2005. After going in there last Sunday for a cleaning bee, I would now like to retract that statement. It's one thing to casually stroll around noting that a building hasn't fallen down yet, and quite another to stand there with a mop, bucket and broom faced with the task of actually cleaning it.

    So it was on 11 September when members of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society went into the old prison for our first cleaning bee since the museum closed six years ago. It was like stepping back in time to open the main gates and walk around with the keys in my hand again, then to open doors and find calendars and newspapers from 2005. It was also a bit like an archaeological dig knowing we'd have to scrape away layers of dirt to reveal the prison in its former glory.

    We had about 30 people there during the day, armed with buckets. cloths, brooms, mops, gloves, spray bottles, gurneys and squidgees. First on the agenda were the cellblocks, and because the cells have barred windows with no glass there was a six-year build-up of dust on the floors. This proved very tricky to sweep because while half the dust is swept into a nice little pile, the other half goes straight up your nose. Although most of the dust was cleared from the cells anyway, next time we will be using a mega-uber vacuum cleaner to finish the job.

    While the Boggo Road Gaol was closed, the volunteers of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society took it upon themselves to keep it clean.
    "You first." "No after you." "No, after you, I insist."

    We also got into the gutters and drains, removing inches of dirt that were blocking them. Some areas were scarier than others, but the toilets were made usable again, to the relief of all.

    We had one or two hiccups, notably when Phil killed the digital security system keypad with a blast of high-pressure water, prompting a visit from the security services. Fortunately the now-clean keypad miraculously came back to life later in the day. John P's single attempt to blow the dust from a cell with a leaf-blower ended just as you'd expect, but he seemed to be in his element in the gatehouse, being all no pasaran and keeping non-BRGHS visitors away.

    All-in-all it was great to get back inside Boggo Road, roll up our sleeves and get stuck into cleaning the place. The buildings benefitted from the visit, and so did our group. There has been some concern within the BRGHS that the place was not being looked after properly, and now we can do it ourselves to make sure that it is. Having some actual hands-on work to do at the prison is great for morale as people have been getting impatient about getting back inside Boggo Road. So although it's not opening for a few years yet, this is a brilliant way of staying in touch with the place.

    The first clean-ups will be obviously be the hardest, but we aim to reach a point where we can stroll in, wipe over some surfaces, do a quick sweep of the floor, and its finished. That day is still far away though, and until then the BRGHS will be going into Boggo Road every month to fulfill the first of our founding objectives:

    "#1: To work to preserve, maintain and promote the site of the No.2 Division at the former Brisbane Prison."