What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us All

What does independent research, shield laws and whistleblower legislation have in common, and why should we give a rats?

Answer? All are essential for the creation and dissemination of the quality information on which good decision-making – not to mention the proper functioning of our democracy – depends.

Take the de-funding of universities. The insistence on successive Australian governments on underfunding higher education has forced some university researchers to rely on Big Pharma dollars. But the data from industry-funded research is flawed for reasons that include a preference for evaluations of patient outcomes in the short-term (they cost less) and the reluctance of drug companies to publish results that show their products don’t work at all, work less well than cheaper alternatives or have worrying side effects.

This week’s police raid on the offices of the Sunday Times was another assault on our right to know. Designed to unearth the source of a story that embarrassed the Carpenter government, it followed last year’s conviction of two journalists for contempt of court because they refused to reveal a source, and the handing of a suspended sentence to a public servant found guilty of leaking a report to the media that revealed dangerous security breeches at Sydney airport. Perhaps this is why Reporters without Borders recently ranked Australia 35th, equal with Bulgaria but behind Bolivia and South Korea, on the press freedom index.

Attack on independent research, the free press and whistleblowers violates the right of Australian citizens, and government decision-makers, to access the independent, fulsome and reliable information they need to make good decisions for themselves, their families and the nation. Yet too often, the public dismisses calls by academics for independent funding, and the demands of journalists for shield and whistle-blower laws, as self-serving. Either that, or they yawn.

But we need to get it. We need to understand that however abstract, airy-fairy or hoity-toity concerns about independent research, press freedom and whistleblowing sound, their absence is hurting each one of us: putting our health at risk; undermining our democracy.

Did you know that the Australian government is now forced to rely on the drug industry’s clinical trials to decide what medicines to subsidise under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme? Think about it – your tax dollars currently subsidise medicines that may be unnecessary, ineffective or even dangerous.

Did you realize that when you open the newspaper each day there are stories you won’t see because your friends, neighbours or colleagues decided not to leak the information that would have informed you of a dangerous incompetence or venal fraud in some key institution? That at least one of the reasons they may have kept mum was a fear – in the absence of comprehensive national whistleblower legislation – of being publicly vilified, sacked or taken to court?

How can we keep our commercial and public sectors free of corruption, if decision-makers know their immorality and errors will go with them to their graves? Corrupt public institutions strike at the heart of democracy itself, by undermining the rule of law, and replacing it with the rule of powerful men, while a free press is essential to a functioning democracy..

So next time you hear some academic thumping their chest about a loss of funding, or a journalist bemoaning some restrictive government law or practice, don’t tune out. What we don’t know can hurt us all.

Publication history

What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us All  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)