- Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a COVID communicator, says her university employer did not protect her from harassment.
- How much of the public backlash against her was because she chose to champion her personal beliefs, instead of just providing balanced comment?
- Wiles is also linked to Te Pūnaha Matatini and The Disinformation Project, organisations accused of being very political.
- She was never actually personally confronted, just scared.
Advocacy vs science
Dr Siouxsie Wiles was a key media figure during COVID. The backlash against her spotlights the risks of pushing your views in contentious public policy debates, especially where the policies affect many people so negatively.
Who is Dr Siouxsie Wiles?
Wiles, a British microbiologist, formerly of Imperial College London, now serves as a researcher and science communicator.
Recognized by the Labour Government for her COVID messaging, she has been an outspoken advocate for stringent lockdown and mandate policies.
Internationally, she gained attention for her viral “Flatten the Curve” animated GIF comic, created with Toby Morris early in the pandemic, which was widely adopted.
University of Auckland lawsuit
However, Wiles’ public role has been contentious. She’s embroiled in a legal dispute with her employer, the University of Auckland, concerning issues of workplace safety and freedom of speech. Her lawsuit centres on the University’s handling of the harassment Wiles faced due to her high-profile COVID advocacy.
The University contends they only recommended she should stop making public statements to reduce the threats against her, aiming to balance academic freedom with security. She accuses the University of trying to silence her and of ‘victim blaming’.
Wiles’ advocacy for COVID measures has been polarising. Most legacy media seems to support her, but that can also be described as the left leaning media supporting someone they see as their own.
Critics argue her support for lockdowns, mask mandates in schools, and vaccine requirements was not sufficiently grounded in scientific data and overlooked personal freedom and societal costs. Even the “flatten the curve” meme, though popular, was criticised for lacking a basis in specific scientific data.
Arguing for a contentious position often generates a backlash
There was no physical harm to her, but the threats instilled fear. Yet, some of her concerns seem trivial. For instance, the University suggested she install a security system at her house and they would reimburse her, but she thought they should pay up front.
While any threats she may have received should never be condoned, it’s also important to recognise the context. There were dire consequences to many from the lockdown measures she advocated. There’s no indication Wiles had any sympathy for those people. Instead, it seems, she felt she knew best.
Some of the so-called threats, like people showing up at the University looking for her, with no good reason to think they have any evil intentions, don’t seem very threatening.
It is not clear what she is asking for in the lawsuit.
Related things Siouxsie has been up to
A 2022 Media Council ruling on Wiles, linked to her public statements following a dispute over the integration of mātauranga Māori and science, illustrates she maybe doesn’t always know. Her position on this wrongly attacked other professors, contributing to them being wrongly subject to criticism.
Additionally, her credibility took a hit when she was seen disregarding her own social distancing recommendations during Auckland’s Level Four lockdown.
The fact that advocacy veiled in scientific authority will often attract negative attention is not unique to Wiles.
Wiles is part of the University’s research institution Te Pūnaha Matatini. In 2020, alongside her colleagues Shaun Hendy and Kate Hannah, they raised concerns about harassment over their COVID commentary. Hendy initially joined her in the lawsuit, but resolved his dispute after leaving the university.
Te Pūnaha Matatini and its offshoot, The Disinformation Project, led by Hannah, have faced scrutiny for political bias, with questions from politicians, academics, and journalists about the impartiality of their research claims.