The Age’s flagship film critic Jim Schembri has taken a swipe at the state of journalistic ethics at his employer, suggesting at a public forum in Melbourne yesterday that ethical standards had become an “optional extra rather than an ethos”.

Schembri blamed a high turnover of staff for the degeneration of principles at The Age in recent years, telling an audience of at least 50 people that a poor understanding of basic ethics among some of his colleagues left him feeling like the paper had been “given a lobotomy” and often made him want to “throttle somebody like Homer Simpson”.

The famously acerbic film critic, commentator and young-adult fiction author was speaking on a panel as part of Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism’s “Journalism on Screen” film festival at the Jam Factory cinema in South Yarra.

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His comments were prompted by co-panellist and Big Issue editor Alan Attwood’s suggestion that 90% of journalists probably wouldn’t have a clear understanding of the Australian Journalists Association’s code of ethics.

Schembri and Attwood were joined on the panel by The Chaser’s Chris Taylor and former Age editor Michael Gawenda, who heads the CAJ. The ABC’s Virginia Trioli was also scheduled to appear on the panel, but called in sick.

Schembri was keen to point out that a strong ethos of ethical reporting had existed during Gawenda’s reign as editor, but these standards had deteriorated in recent years. He said he’d recently explained The Age’s approach to ethics to a friend, and the friend replied that it sounded like ethics had gone from being “an ethos to being an optional extra”. Schembri said he agreed strongly with that description.

Gawenda, who was the panel’s moderator, interrupted Schembri’s comments and joked that “I might stop Jim before he gets himself into trouble”. Schembri continued with his criticism, but Gawenda interrupted again and said “well, I think Jim’s already got himself into trouble”, before moving the discussion along.

When Schembri returned to the topic later, Gawenda again cut him short: “I think Jim has been hassled by an editor.” Schembri bluntly replied: “That’s not true.”

When asked during audience question time how the apparent erosion of ethics had come about, Schembri blamed a high turnover of staff and management for the paper’s apparent “lobotomy”. He suggested that generational change had lead to ethics being watered down and that many younger journalists didn’t have a strong grasp of basic principles.

When another audience member asked Schembri a follow-up, Gawenda stifled the question and said the discussion needed to move along.

Schembri is no stranger to controversy. In 2008 he was singled out for scathing review by Black Balloon co-director Jimmy Jack, who said during his AFI Award acceptance speech: “Jim Schembri, f-ck off.” Schembri later used his blog to dismiss Jack’s comments as an “undignified descent into blogspeak”.

Yesterday’s panel was followed by a screening of Shattered Glass, the 2003 film about 24-year-old wunderkind-turned-sociopath Stephen Glass, who fabricated dozens of feature stories for the New Republic in the late ’90s. Glass was eventually caught in the act by journalists at Forbes Digital and sacked by the magazine’s ethically uncompromised editor.

Schembri appeared to leave the theatre before the movie began.

Crikey tried to contact Schembri by phone at The Age this morning but was transferred to a voicemail message from the critic saying he was on leave.

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Peter Fray
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