Editing The Whistle

 Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), September 1998, pp. 13-14

Brian Martin

Editing The Whistle this year has been a stimulating experience. However, I always saw my role as editor as a stop-gap measure. Come 1999, it will be time for someone else to have a go. So that you can understand what’s involved, here is an outline of what I’ve been doing this year as editor. Of course, others might proceed in a different fashion.

I decided it would be helpful to divide items in The Whistle into three main categories: Media Watch; Articles and Reports; Dialogue and Debate. Media Watch is made up of material published somewhere else and reused in The Whistle. The other two sections are for material written specifically for The Whistle.

Media Watch is mostly made up of stories and extracts from newspapers, magazines, books and web sites. I read the Sydney Morning Herald regularly, the Australian occasionally and quite a few books and magazines. When I come across a suitable story, I put a copy in a manila folder for the next issue.

Relying on my own reading would result in a fairly restricted selection of media materials, so I depend on others to send material. Several people send me clippings from newspapers, notably Don Eldridge and Christina Schwerin. One clipping was sent from an anonymous person in Perth. Sometimes people contact me by email and tell me about a published article, send an electronic copy or refer me to a web site.

Collecting articles and extracts from books is one thing. Deciding whether they should go in The Whistle is another. If the article is about a specific whistleblower or about whistleblowing, then it normally goes in. If there are several articles about the same case, with an overlap of material, then I pick the most informative or well written one. A more difficult decision arises with articles that deal with a topic about which people blow the whistle, such as corruption. If the connection to whistleblowing is obvious, then it can be used. If the connection is likely to be understood only by a few readers, it stays out.

In using an extract from a book, I have to select appropriate pages or paragraphs, and sometimes pick bits from different pages. Often I write a few sentences to introduce the extract. In the case of newspaper articles, sometimes I leave out parts that are not so relevant to whistleblowing. To indicate omissions, I use the standard convention of dots [...].

The Whistle violates copyright law every issue. Strictly speaking, we should seek permission to reprint articles and extracts. In practice, this would be a lot of pointless work. Given our small circulation, non-profit status and inability to pay fees, it is just a drain on everyone’s time and resources to bother about seeking permissions. By reprinting articles, we give publicity to authors and publishers, so everyone gains. This sort of violation of copyright law is standard procedure in an age when copies of newspaper articles are circulated widely on the internet. When you tape a television or radio programme at home, that’s also a violation of copyright law.

The second section is Articles and Reports. Recent examples are Don Eldridge’s article on ethics and doctors (this issue), Jean Lennane’s article on the Independent Commission Against Corruption and Karl Wolf’s survey of writings on dishonesty (July 1998), Kate Schroder’s article on the UK Whistleblowers’ Bill (May 1998), Richard Blake’s article on the public sector (March 1998) and Rachael Westwood’s report on news from NSW (December 1997). I depend on people sending me these items. If I had more time, I could take a more active role in soliciting articles. It would be nice to have a report from each state every issue or two.

The third and final section, Dialogue and Debate, contains letters to the editor, articles that comment about Whistleblowers Australia and business such as this issue’s notice of the annual general meeting. There’s no rigid division between what goes in Dialogue and Debate and what goes in Articles and Reports.

The challenging part of editing is making decisions about what goes in. If an article or letter deals with whistleblowing, is sufficiently well written and not too long, I normally will accept it. If there are some problems with it, I might ask the author to make changes. If it is off the topic or doesn’t communicate at all well, I may say no or suggest major changes.

Another factor is defamation. Since whistleblowers deal with contentious issues such as corruption, the possibility of being sued for defamation can easily arise. Having written WBA’s defamation leaflet, I’m reasonably familiar with what’s involved. If a contribution makes obviously defamatory statements, I may ask the author to omit them, change them or provide documents to back them up. While we should not be intimidated by the risk of defamation suits, on the other hand there is no point in making unsubstantiated defamatory statements if the same information can be conveyed another way.

My preference is to publish controversial material when possible but to allow both sides to be heard. Accordingly, "Dialogue and Debate" is open to those who would like to respond to previously published articles or letters, as in the case of Bruce Ilett’s response (May 1998) to the article by Lionel Stirling (December 1997) about the Jan ter Horst case. (Lionel Stirling responds to Bruce Ilett in this issue.) Allowing responses is especially important when defamation is a possibility.

I’ve come to the view that when writing something that is highly contentious, it is wise for the author to seek comments from those who are directly criticised or who are on the "other side." If the author has not done this, then as editor I might seek a response to appear along with the item, as in the case of the response to Graeme MacLennan’s letter in this issue. An opportunity for prompt response is far more satisfactory than a response months later or an interminable defamation case, and more interesting for readers too!

The next stage in the editing process is subediting, which is making sure that details are right. Most of the Media Watch articles I type myself and then proofread. (Proofreading is checking the article to ensure correct spelling, grammar, capitalisation, punctuation, paragraphing, italics, factual details, etc. In the case of Media Watch, the text should be exactly as published, with any changes indicated by square brackets.) I could get someone else to do the typing (Rachael Westwood has helped) but then I still need to do proofreading. It is possible to scan text into a computer; again, proofreading is still required. I could ask someone else to do proofreading, but that requires posting or emailing and following up to make sure the work is done. I’ve found it easier to do most of this work myself, but others might well find it easier to farm out some or all of the typing and proofreading.

When people send in articles, I ask for copies via email or computer disc. That saves me the effort of typing the article and reduces the chance of error.

On my computer, I have a folder for each issue of The Whistle. Within the issue folder, there are three folders, one each for Media Watch, Articles and Reports, and Dialogue and Debate. Within each of these three folders are files, one for each article, report or letter. After typing or receiving a file, I print it out, proofread it, make corrections, print it out again and check that all the corrections were made correctly. (There is a high error rate when making corrections, so extra scrutiny at this stage is valuable.) Being organised helps!

The deadline for each issue is the 15th of the preceding month. So for this issue, 15 August was the official deadline. It takes me a week or so after this to get everything ready. Then it’s over to Patrick Macalister, managing editor, who prepares the layout for The Whistle. Patrick’s contribution is vital. By email, I send Patrick all the computer files and a plan for the sequence of material; by post, I send a printout of all the text. Patrick then puts it all together, using a standard front page title package and standard back page. He also adds "In this issue" (contents).

There are a few things to know about layout. You’ll notice that The Whistle is made up of several A3 sheets of paper folded and stapled. That means that its length has to be a multiple of four pages. A lot of information is packed into a typical issue. If the total amount goes a bit over a multiple of four pages, then we need to delete something, so I usually indicate several items that are the first to be bumped. If you see some old items in Media Watch, odds are they were bumped from one or two previous issues.

On the other hand, if the text is somewhat short of a multiple of four pages, Patrick can space things out and add some quotes in the middle of the text. There’s also the problem of making the layout look nice. It’s better if articles start at the top of a page or at least not right at the bottom. So articles might be moved around and text shrunk or expanded to make the layout more appealing. There can be a fair bit of thought and work behind things we take for granted.

Patrick sends me a copy of the layout by fax or email so that I can look at the way he’s done it. I look through it for any obvious problems but don’t proofread everything at that stage. We could introduce proofreading at the layout stage if desired.

Patrick takes a week or so to do the layout, depending on his other commitments. Patrick then takes the final copy to the printer, which takes another week or more. The printed copies are picked up by someone from the NSW branch. Rachael Westwood, national secretary, has a membership list which is used to produce labels. Members of the NSW branch fold the copies, put on address labels and post them. It might take the branch one or more weeks to do all this after receiving copies from the printer. You can see that the four stages - editing, layout, printing and distribution - can lead to a delay of a month or more from the deadline of the 15th to receipt of The Whistle by members and subscribers. If we were all in a great hurry and were willing to pay more for printing, we could do all these stages in one day! That’s what happens with daily newspapers, after all.

This operation has run quite smoothly this year. Patrick and the NSW branch are doing an excellent job, making things much easier for me. Being editor does take time and effort, but it’s quite stimulating and not an enormous burden. I’ve tried to spell out what’s involved in some detail so that potential editors can see that it’s an achievable task and not mysterious.

The editor of The Whistle is one of the most important roles in Whistleblowers Australia, since the newsletter is an important means of connecting people from around the country, putting them in touch with what’s happening. Newsletters and journals are similarly important in lots of organisations, so this isn’t peculiar to WBA.

I think it is useful for a number of people to gain experience in editing The Whistle so that we are not reliant on any single individual. If you are potentially interested in becoming editor, please feel free to contact me for more information, and if you’d like to put yourself forward then contact any national committee member. The national committee selects the editor on a year-by-year basis. If you don’t want to be editor but would like to take a more active role with The Whistle, let us know, as it is possible for the editor to give you responsibility for specific articles or one section.

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