Green light to free speech

NSW Health Minister supports the right of NSW Nurses’ Association members to speak to the media.

Health Minister Jillian Skinner has given nurses the green light to speak to The Lamp and other media, without interference from NSW Health bureaucrats.

“Anyone can talk to the media as far as I am concerned. I am an ex-journalist,” Mrs Skinner told the annual conference on August 9. She did point out that nurses need to ensure patient confidentiality.

The minister was commenting on recent attempts by managers at various workplaces to muzzle NSWNA members, particularly branch officials.

In one case, NSW Health district management asked the Association’s Broken Hill branch to have all Association members advise management or media units before speaking to any form of media.

In another instance, management of Justice Health tried to interfere with an interview between the secretary of the NSWNA’s Justice Health branch and The Lamp.

At the NSWNA annual conference, a delegate from the Association’s Broken Hill Base Hospital branch, Bonnie Tavian RN, asked Mrs Skinner: “When you were elected in March 2011, you wrote to all health employees about the importance of openness, ensuring that ‘the facts are on the table no matter how embarrassing’.

“So why are Association members being intimidated by local management and media units not to talk to our union journalists? And what will you do about this?”

Following Mrs Skinner’s reply, Bonnie told The Lamp it was important that the minister stated a clear position because “we were concerned by the fact that CEOs and management were claiming that we had breached the Code of Conduct.

“I’m pleased the minister said we can talk to the media, it has given us some confidence,” she said.

The secretary of the Association’s Justice Health branch, Brian Owens, was the focus of would-be censors when he spoke to The Lamp about issues, including nurse safety, at the Forensic Hospital.

A Justice Health (JH) manager emailed him warning, “If you are being portrayed as a JH employee, you need CE permission for any article/photos”. He told Brian to submit The Lamp story for management approval.

A more senior manager sent Brian another email advising that any staff member representing Justice Health needed prior approval from management, and enclosing the Justice Health Code of Conduct.

Brian sought advice from NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes, who told him he was not infringing the Code of Conduct.

“Brett advised me that the NSWNA Council had authorised branch officials to speak to the media on behalf of branch members,” Brian said. “Brett said management had no right to require me to submit my statements about union matters to management for approval.

“I passed the union’s advice on to management and the The Lamp article was published without any further attempt to interfere.”

Brett Holmes told The Lamp that Justice Health management appeared to have misinterpreted the Justice Health Code of Conduct.

“Staff cannot speak on behalf of Justice Health unless authorised to do so. However the code recognises their right to express their personal views through public comment. Obviously, patient privacy and confidentiality should never be breached. Also, staff should be careful not to defame any particular individual.

“In this case it was absolutely clear that Brian was speaking to the union magazine, not on behalf of Justice Health but, in his capacity as a union representative and was well within his rights to do so.”

Brett said the NSWNA would resist attempts by managers to infringe on the right of union members to communicate with other members about union-related issues via The Lamp.

“We encourage members to put their point of view in the media, particularly The Lamp,” he said. “We are not advocating a breach of the Code of Conduct but make it clear that there are still some rights left to make personal comment or speak on behalf of union members about issues of importance.”

He said some managers had wrongly claimed that, under the NSW Health Code of Conduct, union members could not speak to the media without authorisation from management, and that comments must be approved by management.

“There is nothing in the code of conduct to suggest this. Clause 4.3.13 of the Code of Conduct states that when making public comment on issues, or participating in political or industrial activities, staff must ‘not indicate or imply that their views are those of NSW Health’.

“As long as members make it clear when making statements to the media that they are speaking on behalf of the union then it should be absolutely clear they are not also speaking on behalf of management.”

The NSWNA is available to provide guidance to members on making comment to the media.