The answer is blowing in the whistles

We need to overcome our fears and speak out, writes Brian Martin

Published in The Australian, 15 November 2006, p. 34, with minor word changes and omission of the passages in italics. The title as submitted was "Speaking out".


There are lots of good reasons to speak out. You might want to comment on a current public issue, to publicise your research findings or to expose a problem in the university.

But there are risks, or at least you imagine them! You think that if you offend someone powerful, this might jeopardise your tenure or promotion application. Your grants might be blocked. You might be sued for defamation. A big company like Gunns might sue you for conspiracy, tying you up in court for years. You could even be hauled in by ASIO and interrogated.

Most of these are pretty unlikely. Fears can overwhelm good sense. If you appear in the media, probably the biggest risk is that some of your peers, who think serious scholars should only communicate in academic forums, will think less of your scholarly achievements. On the other hand, others will appreciate your public engagement.

Risks from speaking out do need to be taken seriously. This is something I've been studying for a long time. Over the years I've spoken to hundreds of dissidents and whistleblowers. A group of us edited a book titled Intellectual Suppression published 20 years ago.

More recently, after being president of Whistleblowers Australia and hearing case after case, I wrote The Whistleblower's Handbook so I wouldn't have to keep repeating the same advice. I maintain a large website on suppression of dissent.

Preparation

If there is a single lesson from all this experience, it is to prepare carefully before speaking out. Preventing an attack is far better than dealing with one.

Part of preparation is getting your facts right. Before sending an email claiming corruption, ring a few people to check your information and make sure you've considered other viewpoints.

This applies to scholarly work too. Of course researchers are careful, but if the findings are potentially contentious, it's a good idea to send a draft to likely critics. Sometimes it's hard to get a response. When I wrote a book about the fluoridation controversy, I readily obtained comments from anti-fluoridationists, but it took some effort to find pro-fluoridationists willing to give feedback.

Another part of preparation is assessing likely responses. Speaking at a public meeting or rally on a matter of national importance may get you into trouble, but probably not. Usually, it is far riskier to speak out about an internal matter such as mismanagement, harassment or conflict of interest, within your own organisation.

An absolutely crucial part of preparation is consulting others about the most effective way to proceed. Ideally, you should talk to several people who've done just what you're planning to do. Experience is a wonderful guide.

They might advise on the text of your speech or executive summary. They might suggest waiting for a more opportune time. They might advise joining forces with others.

There is definitely safety in numbers. Petitions are safer than solo statements. Sometimes it's necessary to act alone, but if the risks are great, it's wise to spend a lot of effort building an alliance.

Even with the best of preparation, there are no guarantees. There is a lot of contingency in attacks. In 1971, Clyde Manwell, professor of zoology at the University of Adelaide, wrote a letter to the newspaper about pesticides. How could he have predicted this would lead to four years of bitter struggle resisting an attempt to dismiss him?

Dealing with attacks

If you do come under attack for speaking out, there are some predictable patterns. Attackers usually prefer to operate behind the scenes. They may put a quiet word to your superiors. They may engineer for your paper to be withdrawn from a conference or your speaking slot moved and shortened. You may receive veiled threats.

Sometimes, after you speak out, your students and supportive colleagues suffer reprisals, as an indirect way of attacking you.

If you're reprimanded, put on probation or targeted for dismissal, it is tempting to lie low due to acute embarrassment and humiliation. But by far the most effective response is to expose the attack.

This means obtaining good documentation. Make sure to save that email with a threat.

Going public to oppose attacks on free speech may mean sending an email to a group of supporters, putting up a website or seeking media coverage. Going public about reprisals has the advantage of increasing visibility about the matter you spoke out about.

A standard method of attack is denigration. You might be savaged under parliamentary privilege, but more likely just be the subject of rumours. Derogatory claims may be made about your scholarship, your honesty, your personal relationships, your motives or your sanity. It is common for whistleblowers to be referred to psychiatrists.

You may have evidence to counter these allegations, for example publication lists or staff evaluations. If you have allies, they may be willing to vouch for your good character and contributions. It's best to respond with dignity, and certainly unwise to counterattack.

Almost always, an attack will be said to be something else. Your paper is rejected because of methodological flaws. You've lost your job because of a restructure. These explanations may be sincere and sometimes they are correct.

Your task is to give an alternative explanation, namely that you've been treated unfairly. The double standard test is useful. Maybe you've been denied leave or tenure even though many others, with poorer performance, have been granted it.

The instinctive response of many people under attack is to seek justice through official channels, such as grievance procedures, the ombudsman or the court. This is usually unwise.

I've heard countless stories of whistleblowers - including many academics - who have been disappointed by official channels. William De Maria's pioneering research backs up this impression: whistleblowers reported being helped in less than one in ten approaches to agencies.

The problem is that official channels are stacked against the employee. They are interminably slow. They are procedural and seldom provide moral justice. They eat up vast amounts of time and energy, making it exceedingly difficult to maintain scholarly activities.

The employer has much more money and staying power, and less to lose. Most importantly, official channels take the issue out of the public eye.

Of course you think your case is different: you have truth on your side! If you really want to go down the official channel road, first find half a dozen others who've done the same thing, and find out what happened to them. If you can't find this information, be sceptical.

The judgement of experienced whistleblower advisers is that Australia's whistleblower laws are largely useless. I wrote an article, "Illusions of whistleblower protection," to argue this point. Instead of using official channels, it is far more effective to mobilise support.

Many academics made submissions to the 2001 Senate inquiry into Higher Education, but nothing happened as a result. Another official channel, another disappointment.

Self-censorship

Tenured academics are remarkably privileged. Though our jobs are not perfectly secure, we have far more freedom to speak out in the public interest than employees in government and industry.

The biggest risk to free speech by academics is not reprisals but self-censorship. The best antidote is for more people to speak out.


Go to

Suppression of dissent site

Brian Martin's publications on dissent

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website