Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

How a Communications Saga Rocked CSIRO

CSIRO in bed with big tobacco, as characterised in Australasian Science, April 2004 and July 2004. The cartoon was condemned by Sandland as “a scurrilous piece of junk”, yet Staunton got a member of her staff to ask the Editor for the original artwork to hang in her office. Credit: Simon Kneebone

CSIRO in bed with big tobacco, as characterised in Australasian Science, April 2004 and July 2004. The cartoon was condemned by Sandland as “a scurrilous piece of junk”, yet Staunton got a member of her staff to ask the Editor for the original artwork to hang in her office. Credit: Simon Kneebone

By Peter Pockley

A "warts and all" account of CSIRO has sidestepped some of its most embarrassing failures. The first blog in a series published online this month outlines the documentary evidence behind CSIRO's appointment of a tobacco lobbyist as its Director of Communications, which led to a public black ban of Australasian Science.

How the leadership of Australia’s premier research agency, CSIRO, decided to engage former senior tobacco lobbyist Donna Staunton in 2003 as a top executive to run its “communications” operation – first as a highly paid public relations consultant and, soon after, as Executive Director with membership of the Executive running CSIRO’s management – has been the subject of continuing conjecture within and outside CSIRO.

With documentary evidence, Australasian Science can now unravel the extraordinary story that continues to resonate as a case study in the relations between scientists in the broad and mainstream media. The issues at stake warrant revisiting following the recent publication of a book called Icon in Crisis: The Reinvention of CSIRO (UNSW Press).

In the book co-author Dr Ron Sandland, former Deputy Chief Executive of CSIRO but now retired, and co-author Graham Thompson (a retired senior manager) accuse Australasian Science of basic failures in due process between scientists and the media.

This has opened a proverbial “can of worms” infesting CSIRO at the time. The worms have new life with exposure of the real story through a close examination of the written record obtained from Freedom of Information requests and other sources.

Donna Staunton

Staunton’s senior posts in tobacco industry lobbying had brought her into contact with politicians, some on a personal basis. As senior executive at the Tobacco Institute of Australia and Philip Morris, Staunton (pictured here) was in charge of handing out the large annual donations made to political parties (verified in background documentation for the next part of this blog). In presenting Staunton’s selection to the CSIRO Board, Sandland noted that “the Minister’s office had approved the appointment”.

In his public statements, Sandland also characterised Philip Morris as “the world's largest packaged goods company” and as an “international food and tobacco conglomerate”, with the implication that Staunton had spent most of her life promoting Philip Morris products like Kraft Cheese and Vegemite.

Misleading Defences

In the book (page 203), Sandland accuses Australasian Science of failing to respond to a letter complaining of errors in our reportage of Staunton’s past record and appointment. Sandland complained further that “no apology was ever received or even an acknowledgement of receipt made”.

This is stretching credibility and scores an “own goal”. The facts are that Staunton wrote to Editor Guy Nolch, dated 29 March 2005, complaining about our reporting of her employment record, demanding published correction of more alleged errors and threatening to take the magazine to the Press Council. Contrary to Sandland’s burst in the book, Nolch had acknowledged receipt in writing to Staunton on 4 April 2005 and this writer followed up on 7 April.

This and consequent exchanges were confirmed in print (Australasian Science, July 2004). Through the Australian Science Communicators broadcast email (28 July 2004), Australasian Science acknowledged one minor, inconsequential error in her employment record at AMP (the name of a CEO), and that this had been corrected on the magazine’s web version of the article. Australasian Science stated in print, on the email broadcast and in letters to Chief Executive Dr Geoff Garrett that while we remained confident in our statements, we would give CSIRO opportunities to debate their claims in public, provided interviews were in person, included Staunton, and were open, unrestricted in content and, thereby, publishable. Ms Catherine Livingstone, then Chairman of CSIRO, was sent copies.

This public invitation for interview was also written to Staunton directly by Nolch and this writer and copied to Garrett and Sandland on four occasions up to 25 May 2005 (via fax and email), but she never fronted up to Australasian Science or any other media throughout her tenure.

The threatened complaint to the Press Council never eventuated. In any case, she should have known that Australasian Science was not a member of the Council and is therefore outside their “self-regulatory” role, which only applies to its member publishers.

Sandland’s memory and records are therefore deficient. The Right of Reply to the Senate Committee is a copious source of relevant and revelatory documents.

Equally damaging to her lack of any experience in science – the very core of CSIRO – or even in the media was her well-documented work as a lawyer/lobbyist for clients in the tobacco industry and then as their spokesperson who publicly denied any link between smoking, nicotine addiction and cancer.

Extensive Documentation and a Black Ban

Following persistent attacks on Australasian Science and this writer by Sandland and Garrett during Senate Estimates hearings (recorded publicly in Hansard), the Senate Committee granted a unique Right of Reply that was tabled on 1 June 2005. The 46 pages are privileged and remain accessible on the public record via the Committee's website. In contrast with their complaints of July 2004, Sandland and Garrett have never addressed the contrary facts in this dossier.

The stoush between Australasian Science and CSIRO’s top management and communications Director escalated when Staunton initiated a “black ban” on CSIRO dealing with Australasian Science, and publicised this by coordinating and broadcasting to the Australian Science Communicators email list on 12 July 2004 a series of complaints by 20 “CSIRO communicators”.

Staunton was responsible for coordinating this unprecedented action against a prime media outlet by foreshadowing it in an internal email on 8 July 2004 to all 150 “communicators” under her supervision. Significantly, she omitted her name from the 20 named co-authors of the eventual broadcast and, far from attracting a majority of support, 130 of her “communicators” did not volunteer their inclusion.

Staunton had a second prong in her armoury as she declared in her email to communicators on 8 July: “We are currently drafting a response to the criticisms raised by Australasian Science. The response will be published in the upcoming Monday Mail (Garrett’s weekly newsletter to staff) and copied to the Australian Science Communicators list.” On 12 July 2004 she delivered the black ban on dealing with Australasian Science via a statement emailed to all CSIRO staff over Garrett’s name, simultaneously with the letter from 20 “CSIRO Communicators”, complaining thus (in part):

“[Pockley was] engaging primarily with only one side of the debate. He has chosen a particularly personal, combative and confrontational style of engagement in not only his correspondence, but also articles, which we believe is destructive and unhelpful. In addition, a number of the articles published by the magazine are misleading and/or factually incorrect. We have therefore decided not to commit any more senior management time dealing with Mr Pockley around these issues. We have not taken this line with any other media representatives.”

Australasian Science’s Editor, Guy Nolch, responded forcefully in the magazine and on the Australian Science Communicators email list on 28 July 2004:

“The decision to stonewall a publication that dares question CSIRO is churlish … since two years ago Australasian Science has given CSIRO’s leaders every opportunity to answer criticisms raised against them. So far, they have not challenged those criticisms publicly. CSIRO is a public entity and is ultimately answerable to the public. It is disappointing that its leadership is avoiding its public responsibilities by stonewalling media outlets that raise criticism of its leadership”.

Remarkably, this unprecedented move gained no mention in the Sandland/Thompson book. The public can also check this writer’s detailed rebuttals of the Staunton/Garrett claims in the Right of Reply.

By another year it was clear that it wasn’t just Staunton’s baggage of well-documented anti-science defences of the tobacco industry that overwhelmed her own standing as a self-proclaimed “reputation manager” – her complete lack of science and media experience coloured her capacity to articulate the CSIRO's core national role to the wider public, policymakers and even CSIRO staff.

Garrett and Sandland eventually relented the black ban on Australasian Science by giving a joint interview with this writer (reported at length in Australasian Science, August 2005). Staunton was absent and continued to be neither heard nor seen in public.

Inside Story

The internal mess was highlighted by the experience of Norman Abjørensen, who was engaged by Staunton in 2004 as one of her team of in-house communicators. Abjørensen was a good catch as he brought extensive experience at senior levels in the media and in science-related fields (notably pharmacy).

In a first-hand account published in Australasian Science, April 2005, pp 39-42, Abjørensen recorded how he rapidly became disillusioned with Staunton and Garrett for their naiveté in dealing with the media and staff. For instance he wrote: “Garrett is ever suspicious of internal communication, seeing its prime objective as neutralising or even stifling dissent”.

As for media relations, Abjørensen wrote: “Staunton herself will not talk to the media (which is extraordinary for a communications director) and will not appear where she might be questioned… Staunton, who has told me and others in CSIRO how much she loathes the media, has never worked in the media.”

After telling Staunton of his concerns she “became agitated, telling me perhaps that I needed to ‘reconsider’ my position. I did and resigned in December 2004.”

Abjørensen went on to complete his PhD with the Australian National University and obtained a Visiting Fellowship there in its Policy and Governance Program.

Independent Australian Records

Another set of documents on Staunton’s activities as a tobacco lobbyist was publicly accessible through the Tobacco Control website, a repository of revealing documents hosted by Professor Simon Chapman of the School of Public Health in the University of Sydney. This source was widely known, yet it appears that neither CSIRO management nor their head-hunters took any notice of this available evidence.

In Senate Estimates, 31 May 2004, Sandland told Senators that a private letter Staunton wrote to Chapman on 20 December 2000 – in which she attempted to recant her well-publicised stand that tobacco was not addictive – had been widely circulated, “was on the public record” and “we would not have gone ahead with the appointment had Ms Staunton still held those views”.
Copy of a portion of the letter from Staunton under AMP letterhead to Prof Simon

In July 2004 (pp.12–13) Australasian Science published extracts from the letter (left), showing that she wrote on AMP Limited letterhead as Senior Executive, International Government Affairs, AMP Foundation. In it she wrote:


“As a registered nursing sister and then as a young lawyer, it was never my aim to work for the tobacco industry – frankly I stumbled into the work by chance. Having a nursing and legal background was in those days quite unusual and my superiors recognised the advantage I might have in understanding scientific and legal jargon.

"Early in my legal career I met a number of senior medical and scientific experts who expressed to me what seemed to be a genuine doubt or at least scepticism about the relationship between smoking and cancer. The views I expressed in 1994 and 1995 were genuinely held by me. I now accept that nicotine is in fact addictive and that smoking is the major cause of preventable illness in Australian society.”

Australasian Science reported Chapman’s rejection of Sandland’s claim: “Staunton has never publicly distributed any statement about her repudiation of nicotine as a dangerous, addictive substance.” Nor did she ever do so since then by way of articles over her name or interviews in the media.

The letter remains central to the CSIRO’s defence of the appointment. In answer to a Question on Notice, CSIRO acknowledged that its officers failed to ensure that their head-hunters had made a rudimentary check on whether AMP Limited approved of, or even knew of, Staunton’s use of the company’s name and her position to write and issue her statement, which had nothing to do with her work for the company.

Missing Announcement

On 31 May 2006, one of Staunton’s communications staffers circulated an email internally to the “CSIRO Forum” list, which threatened staff with police action over media leaks. The staffer said that he “recently raised these concerns with the Executive and my supervisor”.

However, Staunton’s end was nigh. Garrett issued a media statement announcing her resignation from July on the afternoon of Friday 9 June 2006, immediately prior to a public holiday, a classic time to issue a “bad news” release. Garrett said (without mentioning the word “tobacco”): "It would be an injustice if Donna's contributions to CSIRO were masked by seemingly constant criticisms, for example around a former role in industry".

This news release is missing from CSIRO’s public files. CSIRO supposedly maintains a comprehensive listing of all releases, and so the media statement recording Staunton's departure should be in serial and date order as No 06/109. However there is a gap in the records between Release 06/108 (5 June 2006), and Release 06/110 (issued on 8 June 2006 for an event on 9 June 2006).

If the CSIRO wishes to maintain a full set of records, Australasian Science will be pleased to supply a copy of the full text of Garrett’s statement in Release 06/109 (9 June 2006).

With a salary of $330,000 per annum plus perks and performance that were never stated publicly but estimated from gross figures for Executive Council, Staunton’s personal cost to CSIRO over three years totalled well over $1 million. While Sandland’s book mounts a defence of Staunton’s appointment, he does not cite a single instance of any positive or notable achievement by Staunton during her time on contract or on staff. In fact he eventually concedes (page 204) that she “failed to move forward much [over] Flagship communication”. This was a prime aim stated for her engagement and was a shared responsibility as Staunton reported directly to Sandland.

Fresh Revelations

While preparing this material, Australasian Science became aware of a parallel line of inquiry about Staunton’s engagement being pursued by Stewart Fist, an independent investigative journalist who has spent some years in chronicling the aggressive lobbying of politicians and media by giant international companies with an anti-science stance. Forced by legal action in the USA, a massive archive of some seven million internal documents from largely tobacco-based companies has become publicly available and is being held on open access in the library of the University of California, San Francisco.

In the dominant case of the tobacco industry, this includes giants like American Tobacco, Brown & Williamson (also British American Tobacco), the Council for Tobacco Research, Lorillard, Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds and the Tobacco Institute. Their own documents expose their internal plotting of how they publicly denied the links between smoking and ill-health as discovered by independent research.

In his enquiries Fist kept coming across evidence of Staunton’s involvement as a high-level executive of Philip Morris in the USA and Australia. He then followed up, with persistent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to CSIRO’s head office, how she gained her engagement by CSIRO.

Sandland should have been well aware of CSIRO’s internal documentary record and reflected it in his account because Fist has been extracting the evidence through FOI requests to CSIRO from November 2010 to the present – while Sandland was writing the book.

Part 2 of this blog presents Fist’s comprehensive documentation and revealing findings, while in Part 3 of this blog Peter Pockley documents some glaring omissions from CSIRO: An Icon in Crisis.

© Peter Pockley (scicomm@bigpond.net.au)