This commentary was posted at ABC Online by Phil Castle, a colleague of Hookham and MacLennan. I’ve reposted it because several comments on my blog so far have criticised the stand I’ve taken in support of two people who I respect immensely. OK, so I’m in Auckland and not close to the action, but Phil Castle is right there. The comments on Phil’s original post are also worth checking out from the link above.
Fear at QUT
By Philip Castle
Recently, I asked a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Creative Industries colleague about the “Laughing at the Disabled …” debate. He said: “I can’t say anything.” I said: “Why?” “The MOPP doesn’t allow me,” he said. MOPP is the Manual for Policy and Procedures at QUT.
I said: “I don’t recall ever relinquishing my rights to free speech when I began working at QUT.” He said he couldn’t comment, but the facts hadn’t properly come out. I asked what facts? He was clearly reluctant to talk. The one he mentioned; he was wrong.
On June 8 two QUT senior TV and film academics Drs Gary Maclennan and John Hookham were found guilty of misconduct and given six months immediate suspension without pay.
Dr Maclennan has been at QUT (previously QIT) for 32 years. They criticised a PhD candidate’s footage about two disabled men at his confirmation in March and then wrote a joint article in The Australian on April 11.
They also criticised the supervising academics and the ethical clearance process for not engaging the disability community first. Dr Maclennan has since unreservedly apologised to the PhD candidate.
My colleague said QUT and the PhD student had not told their side of the story. I said the student has had many opportunities. I had even given his telephone number (from on-line) to journalists, with his knowledge and he still declined.
The PhD candidate won’t show his section of the film now either (I have asked) which he showed at his March confirmation and at two successive first year lectures to over 100 students in early May.
This was where the two men with mental impairment portrayed in the film were also present, unbeknown to the audience, until afterwards. He again showed the footage of an Aboriginal woman in an alleged amorous drunken state; three weeks after the critical article in The Australian.
International QUT Norwegian student Atle Nielsen was at the Foundations of Film and TV lecture in N Block on May 2. He said: “I didn’t and couldn’t laugh at the scenes and was very sorry for the two young men when they came down at the end. It wasn’t right. I work with handicapped persons in Norway and it’s wrong.”
QUT has unwittingly created a climate of fear where academics feel they either can’t or won’t be able to express a view. Obviously two who did, whether rightly or wrongly, have now paid a hefty price.
The punishment is not proportionate to the alleged offences and almost unprecedented in Australian universities. The penalty is about a $50,000 fine and an almost enforced resignation. It gave the story “legs'” as journalists say. An unpleasant legal stoush is almost guaranteed.
If as Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Coaldrake says, it is not about freedom of speech, but misconduct towards a student and colleagues, then certainly that message hasn’t reached my fearful colleague.
It is about free speech as The Australian’s article obviously upset QUT. A senior QUT academic said to me early in the debate, “…and they have done it twice” ie they have written twice to the newspaper and by implication now they have to pay.
QUT is a great university of which I’m generally proud. Its successful PR slogan is “QUT: The University for the real world.” I can’t judge if the “Laughing at the disabled …” clips are reasonable because I’m not privileged to view them.
The ethical processes used appear superficial. I know QUT could solve part of the damage if it engaged the disability community experts to assess the project.
If QUT doesn’t act soon, it will become internationally known as “QUT: the university which laughs at the disabled.” How very sad for such a fine university.
– Philip Castle is a journalism lecturer at QUT, former print journalist and former head of The Australian Federal Police PR