9 Nov 2023

Siouxsie Wiles case: Vaccinologist 'mortified' by university's response to harassment

8:41 pm on 9 November 2023
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Vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris said the University of Auckland let her and others down by not taking action over threats and harassment. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Colleagues of microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles say the University of Auckland did not respond to her concerns about harassment fairly.

Vaccinologist and University of Auckland Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris gave evidence at the Auckland Employment Court on Thursday as part of Wiles' case against the university.

She said she was mortified by leadership's response to herself and Wiles' concerns regarding threats they received during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Petousis-Harris said the university's communications team regularly approached her and Wiles for interviews with the media.

"When the pandemic arrived I was asked by the media communications people at the University of Auckland to become involved in public communications on the subject of Covid-19," she told the court.

After they raised concerns about threatening letters they had received, Petousis-Harris said University of Auckland leadership called her and Wiles to a meeting.

"I was mortified by this meeting, I found the message to be quite traumatic in that the harassment was my own fault," Petousis-Harris said.

"Essentially we were told that the university did not see our media commentary as part of our jobs and effectively it was our fault for engaging and we ought to be restricting our media commentary on Covid-19 in order to avoid harassment."

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Siouxsie Wiles Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The defence lawyer representing the University of Auckland, Rachael Judge, suggested that Petousis-Harris may have misinterpreted the university's intentions.

Petousis-Harris reiterated that her interpretation of the meeting was that "by engaging the media we're attracting harassment... therefore we shouldn't do it."

She said the harassment she had received was only a fraction of what Wiles had endured.

"Siouxsie was more heavily involved in publicly communicating at the outset of the pandemic, and I believe she bore a lot of the burden."

Another of Wiles' colleagues, Physics Professor Richard Easther, was called next.

He responded to claims that Wiles was motivated by a desire for personal fame.

"This is inconsistent with my understanding of the situation and in my view unfair to Wiles, particularly given the serious nature of the threats and harassment she has endured."

Judge questioned whether Wiles' appearances in the media, including on game show Give Us A Clue, and as a paid speaker at corporate events, were appropriate.

"I was aware that Wiles had some paid speaking gigs, [but] the university has many academics who apply their craft in different ways," Easther said.

"There are academics in the music department who play at concerts, there are academics in the English department who write novels, there are academics in the fine arts department who sell their own works."

Easther said that during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic an explicit part of Wiles' role within the university was as a science communicator.

"The paradoxical outcome [is that] Wiles was employed in part as an expert in science communication, but science communication activities are not seen as part of her role."

The case continues on Friday.

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