Contents page of Suppression Stories
Brian Martin's publications on suppression
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When dissenters first come under attack, often they have a strong impulse to seek redress through "proper channels." This includes appeal procedures, grievance procedures, writing letters to top management, and seeking support from trade unions or professional bodies, ombudspersons, official tribunals and the courts, among others. Time and time again I've seen these methods tried. Time and time again I've seen them fail, either by giving a negative decision or by interrupting and diverting the flow of an effective campaign.
When people come to me for advice about challenging suppression, I usually warn them about the limitations of formal channels. Seldom are my warnings heeded. Most people seem to have an intense desire to believe that the formal structures in organisations and society can provide justice. Many dissidents speak out precisely because they believe that if they speak the truth, people will listen and take action. They are shocked when the response is to attack them instead. Yet they retain their belief that someone somewhere is looking out for injustice and can right the injustice. It is a dangerous illusion.
Sometimes, of course, official channels do work. Sometimes it is wise to use them, often as part of a wider campaign. I do not say to never use official channels. But it is important to realise all their disadvantages, and not to expect any solutions.
In many cases, official channels seem to work, but actually the success is mainly due to a campaign. When Jeremy Evans applied for tenure at the Australian National University, the reappointments committee denied it. Then he went to a review committee, which reaffirmed the decision. Then, following the official channels, he went to an appeal committee, which couldn't reach a decision. Jeremy was given two more years and then was successful with a new tenure committee. Was this success through formal channels? Hardly. Without the massive campaign in defence of Jeremy and Human Sciences - letters, meetings, petitions, media stories - it's likely that the tenure denial would have been backed up by all committees. Admittedly, there's no way to prove this. The people on the various committees are hardly likely to admit it, and anyway the influence might not be at the conscious level. It's simply my experience that without a campaign, the formal channels are usually useless.
With a campaign, formal channels may not even be necessary. Politicians and top administrators can always intervene if the urgency is great enough. A noisy campaign is more likely to trigger their involvement than a case following standard bureaucratic protocol.
In June 1980 I received a letter from Michael Spautz, a senior lecturer in commerce at the University of Newcastle. At least he had been a senior lecturer. He had been dismissed a few weeks previously. He had heard about my work on "railroading of academics," asked for a copy of an article of mine and told me a bit about his experiences. I promptly wrote back, expressing interest but commenting that his case was different from the ones I had studied. Spautz then sent a bundle of material, and I became involved with what was to be one of the most tortuous cases at an Australian university.
The events that led to Spautz's dismissal were connected with Alan J. Williams, who was appointed to a professorship in the Department of Commerce in 1977. Spautz had joined the department a few years earlier. There were no problems until 1978, when Spautz objected to new administrative arrangements that put Williams in charge of one of the two sections in the department. At about this time, Spautz raised questions about Williams's PhD thesis - completed not long before his appointment - alleging that it was seriously flawed in its methods and conclusions, due to "spurious statistics and inverted causality."
What are the proper channels for raising concerns about your boss's PhD thesis? The first and very proper step that Spautz took was to discuss them with Williams himself. This led nowhere. Spautz wrote two short rebuttals of the thesis and submitted them to journals. Rydge's rejected Spautz's article on the grounds that it was defamatory. Real Estate Journal rejected Spautz's submission on the grounds that readers would not remember Williams's article in the same journal, published a few years earlier. So much for the proper channels.
It is worth noting that Williams had only recently been awarded his PhD, in 1975. When he was appointed to the second chair in commerce, his publication record was sparse: he had only published a couple of articles. The 750-page thesis was his major piece of scholarly work.
Instead of giving up, Spautz continued to try to expose what he saw as inadequacies in Williams's PhD thesis. In 1979, he added a new charge. He claimed that Williams's thesis contained plagiarised passages. Specifically, he pointed out that Williams seemed to have copied quotes and their sources from secondary sources, instead of looking up the original sources - and that he didn't give citations to the secondary sources.
Spautz went to the University of Newcastle administration with his concerns about Williams's thesis. He was told it was a matter for the University of Western Australia, where Williams had received his PhD. An official at the University of Western Australia replied that responsibility lay with the examiners of the thesis. They were anonymous. Spautz had reached the end of the line.
Getting no satisfaction from Williams, from journals, or from the University of Western Australia, Spautz began spreading his allegations to more and more people around campus. The University of Newcastle administration set up a committee to look into the problem - which it defined as the problem of Spautz's behaviour. At no stage did any committee look into Spautz's allegations about flaws or plagiarism in Williams's thesis.
On the committee's recommendation, the University Council essentially told Spautz to shut up. He didn't respond well to this, and instead escalated his claims. He began his "snowflake campaign," so-called because he circulated memos to academics and others nearly every day, covering the campus like snow. Since it never snows in Newcastle, some academics there may have a curious view of a snowstorm.
Another university committee was set up. It found that Spautz had disobeyed instructions from Council, the university's ruling body. The Council dismissed Spautz from his tenured job on 23 May 1980.
There were a lot of problems with the dismissal process. The University of Newcastle Council had dismissed Spautz without formally charging him with misconduct or giving him a chance to make a full and effective defence. To challenge this dismissal, Spautz again tried formal channels. This time it was the courts.
At this stage the story gets messy - and I've described only a fraction of what happened before the dismissal. Spautz often acted as his own advocate in court and became a self-taught expert on the law. He launched legal actions against the university for wrongful dismissal and against various individuals for defamation, as well as many other charges.
Spautz sent me lots of documents and put me on his mailing list for his memos, which he continued to produce in great numbers. Every few weeks or months I would receive an envelope stuffed with memos. In certain periods Spautz produced one nearly every day, at least in the early stages.
Not knowing much about small business failures, I couldn't easily judge the validity of Spautz's claims about flaws in the methods and conclusions in Williams's PhD thesis. I could, though, check out the allegations of plagiarism. I wrote to Williams for a copy of his thesis, but he didn't reply. So I took up Spautz's offer to loan me one of his copies. I also obtained copies of the sources cited by Williams and of the secondary sources pointed out by Spautz. All indications showed that Spautz was right: Williams had quoted sources that he had, by the evidence, not consulted. As far as plagiarism goes, it was not especially serious, but it could indeed be called plagiarism. I wrote up a document giving specifics about Williams's use of sources.
In April-May 1981 I made a three-day trip to Newcastle. I stayed with my friend Dave Blatt and his wife Betty and their children. Dave and I did our PhDs in the same department at the same time, in Theoretical Physics at Sydney University in the early 1970s. Dave had moved out of nuclear physics into computer science. He did a lot of work to arrange my visit. I gave three talks at the university, on wind power, nuclear knights and suppression of environmental scholarship.
While in Newcastle, I took the opportunity to talk to various people about the Spautz case - not least Spautz himself. He turned out to be a confident and articulate fellow who was completely sure about the justice of his cause and about his course of action. I advised him that he was unlikely to obtain justice through the courts, and that it would be better to document his case and build support in order to expose the corruption that he saw at the university. He said others had given him the same advice. Spautz listened and told me that he wanted to do it his way. The courts it was.
Spautz was passionate about his case. Some people called him obsessed. He called it his campaign for justice. Others called it his campaign against Williams. Spautz's intensity about the case soon alienated many of those who would otherwise have been his supporters. He complained to the journalists who reported his case, and consequently coverage dropped away. It could be said that he was his own worst enemy. In taking up the case, I had an advantage. I lived in Canberra, far away from the action and far away from Spautz's strong personality. At a distance it was easier to assess the issues of importance.
In the years since, I've often found that some distance is an advantage in investigating cases. Those who are right in the middle of the action are so affected by the personalities and events that it is hard to focus on issues of principle. On the other hand, being too far away - so that it is impossible or difficult to actually talk to people, either face-to-face or at least by telephone - is also a disadvantage. Assessing a case only via documents is risky, because there are often important things that people will say but not write down. Canberra, about 400 kilometres from Newcastle, was a good distance for my investigation.
Some of Spautz's views made it difficult for others to support him. He refused to join the University of Newcastle Staff Association because it seemed too political to him; as an industrial psychologist, he wanted to be objective on union-management issues. In spite of this, the executive of the Staff Association made a strong statement about Spautz's dismissal.
Spautz had come to the University of Newcastle in 1973, from the United States. It is easy to say that his challenge to Williams and to the university administration was in some way linked to his status as an outsider. It is certainly my impression that immigrants are more likely to see problems in a society and are less sensitive to the cultural cues that usually inhibit challenges to them. But to trace Spautz's actions just to his background and psychology is to explain away what was really interesting about the case: the response of the administration.
The most significant impression I gained from my visit to Newcastle was how afraid many people were. Some did not want to speak to me at all. Others were cautious about what they said. Spautz had been dismissed. Most of those who saw some injustice in this were reluctant to say so publicly. Perhaps they were afraid Spautz would seek them out as an ally, or perhaps they were afraid that they would be victimised by the administration.
Afterwards, I had enough material for a long article about the Spautz case. I circulated it for comment in the usual fashion. Alan Williams didn't reply, and indeed he never replied to any of my letters. In September 1981, I submitted my article to Vestes, the journal of the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations (FAUSA), the national professional body which later became the national union of Australian academics. The editor wanted something shorter. So I divided the paper into two parts. In December 1981, I sent Vestes the part about the issues surrounding Spautz's dismissal. It was accepted for publication, but had to be checked by FAUSA's lawyers for defamation. In August 1982 I was told that the legal advice to FAUSA was that my article shouldn't be published until court cases involving Spautz were over. This was a prescription for indefinite delay! Also, I protested, I had received informal legal advice that the only person who could be defamed by my article was Spautz himself, and he was hardly likely to complain. After quite a number of letters and phone calls to George Szlawski, FAUSA's industrial officer, to work out changes in the article to avoid defamation, the article was finally published in May 1983.
The other part of the article was about issues to do with plagiarism, using Spautz's allegations about Williams's thesis as a case study. This was a hot topic, to say the least. I sent it to journal after journal, mostly education journals, and received rejection after rejection, usually with no comments of substance. One of them was Discourse: The Australian Journal of Educational Issues, a progressive education journal published out of the University of Queensland. The editor, Ted D'Urso, asked my permission to send it to Alan Williams for comment. I readily agreed, and explained the context of the paper. Before long I received a cold rejection note. I rang D'Urso to ask what had happened. He said that the article would have been published if "everything had been in order," but in light of the reply from Williams and advice from the University of Queensland legal office, the editorial committee had decided not to proceed.
Finally I had success. The Journal of Tertiary Educational Administration, published in Australia, agreed to publish a revised version. I had to drastically reduce the material about Spautz and Williams, partly because the editorial board was concerned about the ongoing court cases and thought that "it might be imprudent to publish an article of this nature at this time." But at least the article appeared. It had been rejected by a total of nine journals. As I said in the article, plagiarism is a taboo topic.
Meanwhile, Spautz continued his long march through the courts. He had numerous different cases going at the same time. When one was thrown out, he would appeal. The most dramatic development came after he lost one case. Court costs were awarded against him, which meant that he had to pay $5000. He refused out of principle. In any case, he had no money, as he was living on unemployment benefits. The magistrate sentenced him to 200 days in prison. But the Supreme Court ruled that the imprisonment was unlawful and he was let out after 56 days. He promptly sued for false imprisonment but for technical reasons was awarded only a token two cents. [In December 1996 the NSW Court of Appeal increased the damages from two cents to $75,000 plus interest, a total of $106,433.74.]
Spautz spelled out the latest news about the court cases in his memos, which gradually became less frequent. The courts are slow moving at the best of times. Spautz's cases dragged on and on. It took some ten years for all his avenues of appeal to be exhausted. The university spent a fortune in legal fees, while Spautz devoted all his energies to this endeavour. What a waste! But there are a few lessons from this saga.
University administrators should have learned to be more careful before dismissing someone. At least that is what I tried to say in my article in Vestes. An important lesson for me was that formal channels don't work when challenging a more powerful person or organisation. When Spautz tried to raise concerns about Williams's thesis, he got nowhere with Williams, with journals or with the university that granted Williams's PhD.
Spautz also tried formal channels, namely the courts, in challenging his dismissal. He certainly caused a lot of trouble, but arguably the whole effort was counterproductive. He alienated supporters rather than building a support network. As the cases became more and more complicated, almost no one could understand the technicalities. Journalists couldn't spend the time to understand the legal niceties, and the cases weren't very newsworthy anyway. With defamation suits right and left, people were wary that they might be sued. Better to stay out of it altogether. As I learned through trying to publish articles about the case, an ongoing court action greatly inhibits discussion of the issues. Finally, the court cases took the focus further and further away from the key issues of the allegations against Williams, Spautz's dismissal, and the accountability of various groups for investigating charges. I put a lot of effort into investigating the case, but as the court process became more and more complicated, I lost track and lost interest. All these negative factors would have been bad enough even if Spautz had won in court. But he lost there too. At least he did it his way.
Spautz came to grief after he criticised the work of a colleague with a higher rank. Others have had a similar experience.
Michael Briggs was professor and dean of science at Deakin University in Victoria. Several people became suspicious about Briggs's research on contraceptives. But no Deakin academics would openly question it. It fell to Jim Rossiter, a medical doctor with a private practice, to make a complaint to the Vice-Chancellor. Rossiter for his trouble received hundreds of threatening phone calls and saw his medical practice go into decline due to a lack of referrals. The Vice-Chancellor, Fred Jevons, initiated an inquiry. Briggs was able to mobilise support from FAUSA. An inquiry was finally set up, Briggs resigned and moved to Spain, where he admitted to fraud before he died of natural causes. A subsequent inquiry at Deakin confirmed problems with Briggs's research but exonerated his colleagues.
This is a very long and messy story. A book could be written about it and in fact one has been. Fred Jevons gave me a copy of his manuscript to read. But he hasn't sought publication because it is defamatory of some others in the saga besides Briggs, who is dead and can't sue. The point of the story is that there are no decent procedures for exposing scientific fraud.
There's a similar lesson in the story of William McBride, one of Australia's most well-known scientists ever since he discovered that pregnant women who took the drug thalidomide often gave birth to deformed children. McBride set up a private research institute called Foundation 41. At one stage in the early 1980s he was investigating the drug scopolomine. Junior researchers Philip Vardy and Jill French discovered that McBride appeared to have altered data in a paper published in the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences. They raised their concerns with the director of Foundation 41. Gaining no satisfactory response, they resigned. Seven other junior researchers at Foundation 41 wrote a letter about the allegations. They were retrenched. Vardy and French wrote a letter to the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences, which didn't publish it.
I heard about some of this story from Bill Nicol during a visit to Canberra in 1986. Bill had written a book about McBride, but he couldn't get it published due to defamation law. He was toying with the idea of getting it accepted as a submission to a parliamentary committee, so it could be included in the parliamentary record and thus be available for quotation by the media. But he had to wait several years. Norman Swan, a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), with medical training as well, broke the story in 1987. This eventually led to inquiries into McBride's research which concluded that he had indeed committed scientific fraud. Swan arranged for the publication of Bill Nicol's book by the ABC.
Once again, the official channels didn't work. Foundation 41 and the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences didn't take action. Only after the media became involved were official inquiries set up. Meanwhile, several researchers who had tried to raise their concerns paid severe career penalties.
The most famous US case in recent years has a similar message. Junior researcher Margot O'Toole tried to raise questions about experimental evidence for results reported in an article in the journal Cell. The work was done primarily by Thereza Imanishi-Kari, David Baltimore (a Nobel Prize winner) and David Weaver. The scientific establishment rallied around Baltimore, who denied any problems. It took dogged pursuit by "fraud busters" Walter Stewart and Ned Feder, persistent media attention and a congressional inquiry to squeeze out evidence that irregularities had indeed occurred. Margot O'Toole's courageous efforts led to the virtual destruction of her career as a scientist.
In trying to pull together themes from the Spautz, Briggs and McBride cases, I came upon a provocative argument. I noted that it was usually difficult to take action against scientific fraud, especially when committed by senior and powerful scientists, even though scientific fraud is ritually castigated as a totally unacceptable practice. At the same time, there are many things done by scientists that involve misrepresentation and bias which are widely accepted, such as citing work that has not been read, not giving co-authorship to people who helped out in research, exaggeration of the quality and social significance of research, padding of curricula vitae, "sloppy scholarship," and accepting research money from vested interests.
For example, Briggs had been made co-author of scientific articles to which he had contributed little. No one did anything about this because it's virtually standard practice. Briggs received research money from a contraceptive company whose contraceptives he reported to be superior. No one did anything about this conflict of interest, since it is standard practice to accept research funding from vested interests. Similarly, McBride accepted money from the lead industry and dismissed the possibility that lead was implicated in birth defects. My conclusion was that when a scientific practice, such as accepting funding from vested interests, is of benefit to elite scientists and their patrons in government and industry, it is not called fraud. The definition of fraud is restricted to things such as manufacturing data that are not particularly useful to elites. Even in these cases, action is difficult to achieve.
When there is a conflict of interest in which a scientist finds results that are favourable to the company funding the research, not much can be done. Formal channels for making a complaint simply don't exist. Only when the scientist is also foolish enough to be caught manipulating data is something done, and then only after enormous efforts. No wonder most people who know about unsavoury activities in science simply keep quiet.
In March 1988, a couple of years after I had moved to Wollongong, I received a letter from Dr Johan Kamminga, a visiting fellow in the Department of Prehistory and Anthropology at the Australian National University. He had been referred to me by Jeremy Evans. He offered to have his name added to my list of people willing to speak to the media about intellectual suppression. He also mentioned that he had submitted a two-volume complaint against the ANU to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
Given all my difficult times at ANU, I was definitely interested in this complaint and wrote back saying so. Thus began an on-going interaction with Jo Kamminga. We exchanged quite a few words by post but even more by phone, since Jo is an enthusiastic conversationalist.
Jo essentially alleged that in the Prehistory Department at the ANU, there was a prejudice in favour of graduates of Cambridge University. The Prehistory Department is part of the research schools at the ANU, which have no undergraduates and in terms of research are the most privileged part of Australian academia. Hence, although the Prehistory Department has only a few tenured academics, its role is especially significant.
Jo's complaint to the Ombudsman was a model of scholarly investigation - an investigation into scholarly bias. He provided figures on appointments in Prehistory over 25 years. He also analysed five particular appointments in detail, showing what he alleged were shortcomings in selecting the short list of candidates, in ruling out certain candidates and in choosing the successful applicant. He argued that there was a bias in favour of graduates of Cambridge University.
Jo had an obvious vested interest in raising the issue. He was an archaeologist with an outstanding record in the field, trained in Australia and singularly unsuccessful in his applications for jobs in the Prehistory Department. But from a career point of view, making a complaint was not a wise thing to do. It would brand him as a dissident and possibly make him unemployable in the field. He knew this. He nevertheless felt it was important to make the complaint. He spent months investigating and preparing his submission.
Jo's training in archaeology and anthropology turned out to be good training for his submission. He was thorough and meticulous in collecting information about selection procedures, university and government regulations and the like. He kept in touch with members of various selection committees and referees for job applicants. He kept in touch with various sources on campus. He even kept on reasonable terms with several of the members of the Prehistory Department, even after he had made his complaint and had received media attention. This indeed was unusual. In my experience, most dissidents become quite alienated from anyone they believe responsible for their situation.
My recommendation to Jo was the usual one. I didn't think official channels - in this case the Ombudsman - would give him much satisfaction. It was likely to take a long time and not lead to any changes in substance. Jo realised there would be problems but once he made his decision to proceed, he pursued his course with total commitment. An unanticipated complication was that the newly appointed Ombudsman, Dennis Pearce, was a law professor at ANU, on leave from the university for three years. Would he be willing to take strong action against his employer? Jo thought he had a good case and that he could win. In any event, he was committed to his course of action.
Getting the Ombudsman's office to move on the issue required a major effort on Jo's part. He met with various officers as well as the Ombudsman himself, provided additional documents, and pursued them with phone calls and letters. Originally he thought the case would take three months. It ended up taking three years.
Jo was also willing to seek media attention. He talked to various journalists, briefing them on the case and providing them with documents. Arguably, the media attention had a greater impact than the Ombudsman's investigation. But they were not mutually exclusive. Media coverage may have kept the official case from being dropped.
My first aim, as in many such cases, was to gain an understanding of the key elements of the issue. This wasn't easy. Jo's report was clearly written, but the case before the Ombudsman quickly got into technical issues concerning rules and regulations, such as whether a particular selection committee, for a particular appointment, had been legally bound by government regulations, whether university procedures adequately reflected those regulations, and so forth. My interest was much more in the general issues of bias in appointments. I wrote a short article, telling about Jo's complaint to the Ombudsman in the context of discrimination in academic hiring practices. I sent a draft to some key people, including the head of the Prehistory Department and the Vice-Chancellor of ANU. Jo told me that the article stirred up discussion in the Prehistory Department.
I decided to send the article to several student newspapers. Student newspapers are a good venue for critiques of universities, because they are often willing to criticise the establishment and they are read by lots of people. Many academics read them, though not always publicly! After my article was published in some student newspapers - most notably in Honi Soit at Sydney University - Jo told me that it had caused a stir at ANU. Having the article in print was useful, since it summarised the general issues conveniently and could be sent to others, such as journalists, to introduce them to the case.
The case went on and on. Jo filed new complaints, such as a complaint to the Ombudsman in Darwin about selection procedures at the University of the Northern Territory. Jo contacted more journalists and obtained more coverage. Sometimes I was asked to comment. Jo's case went to the Council of ANU, the governing body. He contacted various members of Council, providing them with information. He worked through the ANU Staff Association and also through the national organisation FAUSA. Most of this produced very little.
Meanwhile, Jo was juggling his own life. He survived on consultancy work in archaeology. He took trips to Thailand for his archaeological research and attended conferences in Japan and the US. He wrote archaeology articles. When one of his books was published, he organised publicity. He bought a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Canberra and refurbished it as a Thai restaurant, which he ran with his wife Katai. When I visited the restaurant, I found that Jo had put a copy of my article in Honi Soit in the display area near the door.
As ANU administrators seemed to evade the scrutiny of the Ombudsman, Jo filed more complaints. He put in requests for information through Freedom of Information legislation. When items were denied, he tried another official channel: the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Jo sent me official reports that dealt with his complaints. They were so couched in administrative jargon that I had to ask Jo to interpret what they really meant. In essence, his case to the Ombudsman led to some changes in appointment procedures at the ANU. His case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal led to some changes in criteria for releasing documents under Freedom of Information legislation.
It seemed to me that the official channels in this case led to a bottomless pit of administrative detail. But Jo was committed to the case and he perceived a few gains. Many of the gains, though, can be attributed to the publicity that the case attracted. There were many stories in the media. University administrators hate adverse publicity. Making selection procedures appear more rigorous is one way to avoid future bad publicity. Whether things have really changed in another question. Jo believes that the system of cronyism and patronage at the ANU remains intact, and that is his primary regret.
Jo's original complaint to the Ombudsman was one of the best documented accounts of bias in appointments that I've ever seen. It seems a shame that it led into murkier and murkier levels of bureaucratic discourse and manoeuvring. Journalists tried valiantly to make a clear story out of the case. Many academics were quite sympathetic. They are familiar with academic old-boy networks. But it is hard to mobilise support when the issues become exceedingly complex.
I think it might have been more effective for Jo to have written his original complaint as a document for general distribution, and to have arranged publication somewhere. He could have pushed for changes in appointment procedures, using the power of publicity to mobilise support rather than the threat of sanctions to force compliance. Would this have worked? There's no way to know for sure. Jo's ordeal through official channels certainly didn't change my view about their ineffectiveness for a challenge such as his.
There are other cases with a similar message. Remember Melvin Reuber, the US pesticide researcher whose reputation was ruined as a result of the publication of a criticism from his boss in Pesticide & Toxic Chemical News? He went to the courts and won big: $875,000. But the journal appealed. Reuber won again at the first appeal to the Court of Appeals, with the three judges unanimously in his favour. Then the journal appealed to the full bench of the Court of Appeals, and Reuber lost. The US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, which meant the final Court of Appeals decision stood. In the end, after a decade in court, Reuber's case failed. He got nothing.
In mid 1991 I received a call from John McNicol in Canberra. He had set up an organisation called the Social Conscience Group. He set up a hot line for whistleblowers and received 75 calls in the first month. Before long he set up an organisation called Whistleblowers Anonymous. It worked to support individuals, such as government bureaucrats, who had come under attack for speaking out. The word "whistleblower" has come to mean anyone who speaks out in the public interest, typically to expose corruption or dangers to the public. However, the greater danger is often to the whistleblowers, who are attacked by their employers with great regularity.
Because whistleblowing is such a risky business, John McNicol's support organisation allowed whistleblowers to keep their identities out of the public eye: they were anonymous. But the title Whistleblowers Anonymous was not a good one, since it incorrectly suggested, by analogy with Alcoholics Anonymous, that it was composed of people who were trying to kick their habit of whistleblowing. The name was later changed to Whistleblowers Australia.
There's obviously a close connection between whistleblowing and suppression of intellectual dissent, but there are differences. Not all whistleblowers are attacked as a result of their actions, though many of them are. On the other hand, many cases of suppression do not involve whistleblowing. Jeremy Evans was denied tenure; his teaching in the Human Sciences Program may have been threatening to some people, but he was not a whistleblower. Suppression of dissent can occur by blocking appointments or publications; only in some cases could those who are suppressed be called whistleblowers.
The idea of whistleblowing focuses attention on the person who speaks out and on their action. By contrast, the idea of intellectual suppression focuses attention on the act of suppression and the people who carry it out. For most purposes I prefer to use the concept of suppression, especially since it is more general and more easily leads to an investigation of systems of power and patterns of suppression. A focus on whistleblowing is more individualistic, and it is easy to get diverted into examining the personality of the whistleblowers.
John McNicol invited me to join the board of Whistleblowers Australia. At the first board meeting that I attended, in Canberra on 26 March 1993, the meeting began with introductions. Each board member was invited to say a few words about themselves. Many of the board members were whistleblowers themselves and had been through complex and traumatic experiences. Their stories could not be told in a few minutes. I was used to hearing of corruption and unscrupulous actions, but even so the stories had a big impact on me.
Vince Neary, for example, told about his struggle in the State Rail Authority of the Australian state of New South Wales. Beginning in 1987, he raised the alarm about rorts - large payments to companies without evidence that they had done the work specified - and what he considered to be unsafe signalling practices. He raised his concerns initially with the people concerned, then with the head of State Rail, then with his representative in parliament, then with the state ombudsman, then with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, then with the state Auditor-General. The management of State Rail denied his claims throughout. For raising these issues he was harassed, sent for psychiatric examinations, demoted, put on menial work and eventually dismissed.
The official channels didn't work for Vince. But he kept his faith in the system and kept trying further channels of appeal. The cruelest twist came two years after he had first gone to the Auditor-General. The person in the Auditor-General's office working on his case was Dick Dunn. Vince kept calling up to find out what was happening. Dunn was preparing to report to parliament about the State Rail's refusal to supply documents. Then in September 1992 Vince found out that Dunn had taken leave of absence from the Auditor-General's in order to work for State Rail at a "senior executive" salary. Talk about disillusionment!
Fortunately, Vince gained support through the media and from other whistleblowers. Years down the track he received a substantial payment from State Rail as part of a settlement - though not substantial enough to compensate for years of harassment and loss of his career. One condition of the settlement was that he not reveal details of the settlement itself.
Many of the stories told by whistleblowers are so astounding that it is easy to be sceptical. Officials don't do such nasty things, surely! Naturally, if I was going to write or comment on any case, I would want to see relevant documentation. But having heard so many cases, I'm familiar with the patterns of suppression.
Certain things are good indicators. There is the whistleblowing itself, of course: the person says or does something that is threatening to powerful interests. Then there are reprisals. Most whistleblowers have exemplary records at work, being unusually conscientious. They believe in doing things properly, which is why they blow the whistle. Afterwards, they come under attack. Complaints are made about them, but they are not told the charges. Their sanity is questioned and sometimes they are sent to psychiatrists (often allegedly to justify their claims to sick leave due to stress). Their work performance is criticised. They are transferred, isolated, demoted, reprimanded, dismissed. When a case fits the pattern, my inclination is to believe the story. Imaginary stories of suppression would probably contain features that don't fit the pattern.
Why would anyone make up a story of suppression, anyway? Most people who are attacked for their courageous acts of whistleblowing feel violated. They may feel guilty. They are often reluctant to tell others, much less seek publicity. Talking to other whistleblowers is therapeutic as well as providing practical suggestions for action.
The most frightening cases involve violence. People who have challenged corrupt police or organised crime can be in great danger. In many countries, the government is repressive and dissent is a crime. By definition, the official channels do not work in such situations.
The new president of Whistleblowers Australia was Jean Lennane, a psychiatrist who had herself been dismissed from the NSW Department of Health for speaking publicly against government funding cuts. She did a revealing study of the experiences of 35 whistleblowers, preparing a table listing all the official channels that had been tried, such as internal appeals procedures, ombudsmen, trade unions, parliament and so forth. Since many whistleblowers had tried several of these channels, she could produce a score for each official channel, giving the number of people which any given channel helped, hindered or made no difference. She found that most channels were more likely to be a hindrance than a help, with "made no difference" the most frequent report. Jean's conclusion is that there is one thing you can count on when you use official channels: that they won't work. This was a strong message. I agreed wholeheartedly. After all, it was precisely the conclusion that I had come to myself.
Yet no matter how much evidence I might give, most people won't believe it. The belief that there is justice to be found somewhere is deep seated. A few people seem to be vindicated, which provides hope. Even more than this, though, dissidents know that they are doing the right thing by speaking out. They know in their hearts that if there is such a thing as justice, it should be on their side. They think that although other people may have had bad experiences, their own case is so good that its justice is bound to be recognised. There is nothing I can say to change such an opinion.
Jean Lennane concluded that there were only two things that helped whistleblowers with any reliability. They are publicity and support from other whistleblowers. I could only agree.