Talking about whistleblowing

The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), May 1997, pp. 2-4.


Brian Martin

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A good way to raise awareness about whistleblowing is to give a talk. There are many opportunities for those who seek them out, including schools, service clubs, conferences and public meetings.

For those not used to public speaking, even the idea of giving a talk can be frightening. Yet it is a skill that most people can acquire, given patient application and practice. Here are some tips on how to proceed. First I'll describe the sort of material I put in a typical talk for a nonspecialist audience and then go into some practical details about speaking.

An absolutely vital part of giving a good talk is knowing the material. You need to know what you want to say. It is possible to write an entire speech and read it, but this usually leads to a boring talk. My approach is to write down an outline and to make sure I know what I want to say under each point. Here's a possible outline of main topics. Under each topic go various points, as I'll describe later.

* Case studies
- Vince Neary
- David Obendorf
- Mick Skrijel
- Bill Toomer
* Methods of suppression
* Ways that dissent is inhibited
* Responses
* Whistleblowers Australia

I like to start with case studies because they grab the attention of the audience - they deal with real people and events. Then, having described some case studies, it's possible to go on to more general topics. The general points make more sense once people are familiar with some examples.

For each of the case studies, I gather some articles, read them thoroughly and then figure out how to summarise the story in a couple of minutes. Yes, that's all - two minutes for a case about which a book could be written! That's because a talk shouldn't be too long. Most people start losing concentration after 15 or 20 minutes. Usually I aim to speak no more than 30 minutes, leaving lots of time for questions and discussion. Also, I like to invite short questions along the way. This makes it more interesting for the audience.

I prefer to use transparencies and an overhead projector. This gives a visual dimension, making it easier for the audience to take in the information. It's also easier for me as speaker, since I use the overheads to structure the talk. Finally, overheads make it easier for the speaker since the audience looks at the screen rather than at the speaker.

So, for each case study I prepare an overhead or two. This means pulling out key events that will make some sense to the uninitiated. Then, in speaking, I don't repeat what's on the screen but just whip through the basic plot, mentioning a few highlights. For example, in Vince Neary's case I point out the failure of the various official channels to deal with his complaints. I also say the full names for key acronyms such as DPIF and NCA. Here are some overheads that I have used for case studies.

Vince Neary versus State Rail

* 1987. Complaints to people responsible about unsafe signalling practices and misappropriation of funds. Response: ignored or ostracised.
* 1989. Complaint to SRA chief executive. Result: SRA sets up task force; no problems found; report not revealed.
* February 1990. Complaint to local member. Response: referred to Minister of Transport who cites task force findings.
* May 1990. Complaint to Ombudsman. Response: declined to investigate.
* August 1990. Complaint to ICAC. Response: inquiry announced in February 1992, then cancelled.
* August 1990. Complaint to Auditor-General. Response: investigation, then no help.
* September 1990. Request through FOI for task force report. Response: obstructed by SRA, obtained 1994.
* January 1991. New complaint to SRA. Response: commissioned report vindicates Neary.
* 1991-1993. Demotion, referral to psychiatrists, attacked in Parliament, pay stopped, dismissed.
* October 1993. SRA recommends independent assessment into signalling practices.

David Obendorf versus DPIF

Obendorf criticised cutbacks in disease control services for farmers
* transferred to Hobart and demoted to non-lab position
* transferred back to Launceston to an office with no facilities
* rumours spread about his sexuality and health

Mick Skrijel versus NCA

1978: Skrijel makes claims to police and politicians about drug trafficking in SA
* threats and beatings
* fishing vessel destroyed by fire
* attempted rape of daughter
* car destroyed by fire
* house partly destroyed by fire
* business lost due to boycott
* 1984: NCA investigation into allegations
* 1985: NCA evidence leads to conviction of Skrijel in 1985 for growing marijuana and having an unlicensed firearm; Skrijel goes to prison
* 1986: sentence set aside on appeal
* 1993: federal government appoints David Quick QC to report
* 1994: Quick recommends royal commission into NCA
* Justice Minister Duncan Kerr instead refers matter to Victorian Deputy Ombudsman
* February 1996: Skrijel circulates leaflets in Kerr's electorate
* February 1996: Kerr threatens defamation actions against media; Kerr sends AFP to interview media and Skrijel

Bill Toomer vs shipping interests

* 1968-1972, Geelong: Toomer refuses bribes to ignore infestations of ships
* 19 May 1973, Fremantle: Toomer orders fumigation of a ship
* 24 May 1973: Toomer's order overturned by superiors
* 1973-1980: charges, demotions, transfers, voluntary retirement
* 1973-1993: 11 inquiries into the affair

Vince Neary's and Mick Skrijel's cases each take up two overheads. This may not be a good idea, since putting everything on one overhead lets people see the full picture. But it's important to make lettering large - the biggest complaints people have about overheads are that there's too much information and that they can't read them. On a computer, I use at least 24 point type.

After covering some case studies, I then present the following list:

Some methods of suppression

* censorship of writing
* blocking of publications
* blocking of appointments
* blocking of promotions
* withdrawal of financial support
* forced job transfers
* reprimands
* denial of work opportunities
* legal actions
* ostracism and harassment
* dismissal
* blacklisting
* spreading of rumours

It's nice to pause at this point and just let people read the list. I don't need to comment except possibly to explain one or two methods with an example.

At this point, hopefully, people are getting the idea of whistleblowing and suppression. It's time to turn to some general considerations. The next overhead is:

Some ways that dissent is inhibited

* defamation law
* laws against free speech by employees
* reprisals against dissidents
* censorship
* acquiescence; self-censorship

Censorship is fairly self-explanatory and reprisals have already been illustrated, so I might comment on government secrecy laws and especially on the importance of self-censorship. I then point out that defamation law, reprisals and so forth are only used against some people - dissidents. I put the following information on the bottom of the same overhead but initially cover it up with a piece of paper. Then I reveal this information so everyone can see the contrast on the screen.

Selective application of methods of suppression

* routine defamation, never prosecuted
* tactical leaks by politicians and top public servants
* favouritism, payoffs
* public relations (lying for the cause)

Each one of these four points is the obverse of the top four points in the overhead. For example, ordinary public servants are muzzled by secrecy provisions, but politicians routinely leak information for political purposes, and nothing is done to them at all. There's an obvious double standard.

Now it's time to turn from the problems to possible solutions. I present this overhead:

Some responses

* play by the rules, keep a low profile
* be a whistleblower
* push for law reform
* change the government
* set up and join support groups
* run campaigns
* mobilise support
* use direct action

Typically I run through each point making a few brief comments. For example, I point to the first response and say "Playing by the rules and keeping a low profile certainly helps one avoid being attacked, but it doesn't address the problem of ongoing corruption." Then I point to the second response. "Being a whistleblower like Vince Neary or Bill Toomer exposes the problem but may only lead to reprisals without the problems being addressed." My preference is to outline strengths and weaknesses of each response rather than recommend a single response for all situations and all people.

This might be a good time to stop and invite questions. I keep track of the time and also watch members of the audience to check their level of interest. Question time is always more stimulating than more information from the speaker. Also, I can usually use a question to raise points I didn't get to cover in the talk.

Depending on the circumstances - especially when people are interested in how to respond on an individual level - I might use the following overhead, based on the valuable manual Courage Without Martyrdom.

Advice for whistleblowers

(adapted from Courage without Martyrdom)
* Before taking any action that may lead to attack, consult with family and close friends. You need their support.
* Before taking action, see if there is some way to achieve your goal by working within the system.
* Try to find out if there are other people, especially co-workers, who share your concerns.
* Behave fairly with other staff. They may also have encountered harassment from bosses and be able to testify on your behalf.
* Keep a detailed record of events. When something really important happens, write up a statement and sign it in front of a witness if possible.
* Make copies of all important documents that you can. Your case depends on them.
* Find honest supporters, including politicians, journalists and community organisations. Develop a plan for taking the initiative; don't just respond to actions by the other side.
* Obtain advice about taking legal action. Don't overstate your case.

I just let people read this, and only comment if someone asks a question.

If someone asks about whistleblower organisations or if it's suitable to promote Whistleblowers Australia, I use the following overhead:

Whistleblowers Australia

* support for whistleblowers
- contacts
- meetings
- leaflets, articles, newsletters
- conferences
* campaigns
- free speech for employees
- defamation law
- whistleblower legislation
* test cases
* networking
- free speech and other organisations
- media
- legal practitioners
- community groups

Finally, I might have some overheads in reserve in case someone raises a particular issue. For example, since I've taken a special interest in defamation, I prepared the following overhead, based on the defamation leaflet.

Strategies for free speech in the face of defamation law

* Avoid defamation
* Say it to the person
* Keep a copy for posterity
* Call the bluff
* Defend yourself
* Use publicity
* Recommend law reform
* Campaign for law reform
* Speak out in campaigns

It's certainly not obligatory to have overheads like this. My main point is that a structure for the talk is vital. Some people do brilliantly just speaking. I started out with fewer overheads and gradually prepared more as I gave more talks. You're welcome to use or adapt these points for your own overheads, but my recommendation is to write your own the way you'd like to give a talk. You don't need to start with case studies or cover the same topics I've outlined here. This is just an illustration. Do it the way you feel most comfortable with.

Getting on top of the subject matter is an important part of giving a talk, but for many people the most challenging thing is actually standing up and speaking to an audience. The best way to overcome fear of speaking is to practise and start small. It's useful to practise a talk alone in a room, speaking full volume, perhaps in front of a mirror. Use a clock to keep time, and prepare 5-minute segments. If you still feel nervous, do it again and again until it seems boring. Another useful technique is to record yourself and listen to your talk. (Audio tape is valuable; videotape is even more helpful.) Played back, your voice will seem strange at first, but once you get used to it you can concentrate on your expression.

When you feel ready, invite a friend to hear your talk. If you decide to use overheads, practise with them too, so you aren't fiddling to find the right one and figuring out which way is up. Once you feel comfortable giving your talk to a friend, recruit a few more friends and give the talk with 3 to 6 people. As you do these practice runs, you'll soon find which things you need to learn - maybe more about some aspect of Mick Skrijel's case, or perhaps about the current state of whistleblower legislation in Australia.

If the friends you invite to hear you are honest, they'll give you some helpful feedback. Ask them, "What did I do well?" Then ask, "What should I do to improve?" They might say speak louder, speak more slowly, put more excitement in your voice, maintain eye contact with the audience, eliminate "ums" and "ahs," give a better introduction, and so forth. Even experienced speakers have much to learn, and the best way is to get feedback from listeners.

When you're starting out, I recommend joining an experienced speaker and just doing part of a talk. The experienced person will be there to back you up if you need help and to answer any questions you don't feel comfortable with.

Follow-up is vital. I take along leaflets, copies of The Whistle and sometimes books. The talk can be just a way to get people interested enough to read about the issues. It can also be helpful during the talk to show a copy of a report or book relevant to the case. If you want to get more sophisticated, you can produce slides or show extracts from videos. Always make sure beforehand the equipment is working properly.

The speaker gets most of the glory, but the organiser of the talk can be just as important. Often it involves many phones calls, skills in persuasion and sometimes a major effort to arrange publicity. I'm always grateful to those who do these vital tasks. I have some idea what it's about, since sometimes I arrange talks for others.

Beforehand, I ask the organiser of the talk about the audience. Who are they? How many are there likely to be? What are their interests? What do they already know about the topic? What type and length of talk are they expecting? What do they want to know? The answers to these questions help me plan what I want to say. If it's a small audience (a dozen or less), I might invite people to introduce themselves and tell about any special interests they have in the topic.

Before a talk, I try to read through summaries of the cases. For example, I carry in my speaking folder the one-page Bulletin article about David Obendorf's case, and scan it beforehand, along with something similar about each of the other cases I plan to highlight. It's nice to have some of the details fresh in the mind. Then I glance through the overheads so that the structure of the talk is clear in my mind.

The talk is about to start. I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Let's hope it goes well. If just one person in the audience picks up an important point about whistleblowing, it may make a big difference in someone's life at some stage in the future. It's worth doing. So let's proceed!