Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Stateline‘s long Michael Booth segment on Friday 20 June was awash with slow footage of sandstone - it blamed the University of Sydney, and especially its VC, Gavin Brown.

But if you want to piece together a sequence of events, you need to do your own research.

The ABC’s story follows a much shorter print story by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Harriet Alexander. The sole focus of the 28 April story is Booth’s misuse of blood samples.

But on 3 May, Alexander adds (‘Whatever you do, don’t rock the boat’) the sort of details the ABC includes. Still, dates are scanty. It’s hard to construct a timeline.

But in the story Alexander implies that researchers are pushed to publish conclusions that suit the government that provides the money.

We must rely on the ABC’s version for details. Which are:

  • Tony Cunningham, director of the Westmead Millennium Institute asks Booth to let him use blood samples to be collected, for herpes research
  • Booth “received verbal permission from the [ethics] committee chairman” to alter words on “parent information sheets”
  • “No such letter could be found”
  • Booth promoted to associate professor
  • Booth’s SPANS finding was that “over-eating and not lack of exercise” caused children to be overweight
  • In April 2006 Booth was “asked to discuss these findings at the NSW diabetes summit”
  • He gets written approval “three days later” to go ahead
  • Reporter Nick Grimm says “John Hatzistergos had had Michael Booth’s report in his possession for eight months”
  • But the health minister “had not yet officially released it”
  • Receives email about “extreme dissatisfaction” over “early release of this information” without ministerial consent
  • An “ethical misconduct case against Michael Booth” “dormant for five months, suddenly ramped up”
  • The university investigator “Helen Colbey of the NSW Internal Audit Bureau” (according to Alexander, ‘Uni academic denied natural justice: review‘) says “Professor Brown wrote … expanding my role to deal with … allegation[s] … that Dr Booth prematurely released the SPANS results by participating in press releases”
  • In April 2008 a “retired Supreme Court judge” found the sacking to be “unreasonable” due to a lack of “procedural fairness”
  • As soon as Stateline told the university it was doing the story, Booth “received a settlement offer from his lawyers”
  • Booth refuses to accept the offer

The ABC could be said to have distorted the message to create drama, and accompanied it with acres of sandstone, to create a compelling, David and Goliath frame of reference for Friday night viewers.

This image should not be used against government. We know that universities have been being squeezed for some time. But the problem will not go away, especially now that notions of 'spin' and brand management are so visible.

In The Australian on Wednesday 18 June David Rowe and Kylie Brass paint a familiar picture of university spin doctors eager to stay on-side with the mandarins in Macquarie Street and elsewhere.

“Speaking beyond disciplinary peers to broader publics is a necessary - and necessarily risky - business.” But outcomes are “difficult to script”. Institutional “damage limitation” is the inevitable result when feisty and intelligent - and well researched - teachers enter the public sphere.

Bringing the university into disrepute is the risk. But what is the alternative?

Back in the late middle ages before Luther used the new technology of printing to disseminate his ideas of authenticity against corruption, it was John Wyclif who stood firm.

But Wyclif was fully protected by his employer - Oxford University - which refused to let him become meat for the cats, the inevitable result. A few generations later Jan Hus was assassinated by the church for the same heresy.

Luther, later, would be protected by a sympathetic ruler. Nationalistic and religious issues were almost always connected in the early modern period. Anti-German feeling helped the utraquists in Bohemia gather support among notables.

If Oxford had surrendered Wyclif the university’s reputation would, now, suffer.

Nick Grimm, ABC reporter, Michael Booth overlayed during broadcast
Deborah Rice, ABC TV presenter
Letter from former chair of the ethics committee
University of Sydney quadrangle detail
Michael Booth and Nick Grimm go over the details
University of Sydney quadrangle detail
Wayne Smith, public health, Sydney Uni
Stuart Rosewarne, NTEU
Michael Booth at home

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