Some University of Auckland managers were uncomfortable with Dr Siouxsie Wiles’ “celebrity” status during the pandemic and gave her the nickname “Brand Siouxsie”, a court has heard.
After becoming one of the most prominent voices during the Covid-19 pandemic, some of Wiles’ bosses challenged her on regular media commentary and her place in the spotlight.
Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences dean John Fraser emailed Wiles in late 2021, when Auckland was in a Level 3 lockdown, the Employment Court heard in Auckland today.
“We wish to assure you that we appreciate that you have been undertaking outside activities with good intentions and much of your activity has been of benefit for the public understanding the Covid-19 pandemic,” Fraser wrote.
Wiles, a microbiologist and science communicator, was interviewed up to 30 times a day during the pandemic. While that work was often praised by university leaders, it later gave rise to questions about whether her commentary and media appearances were all within her remit.
Fraser’s letter went on to question whether the university had been informed about all of her “outside activities” and if they were all in line with university policies. In particular, she may not have received permission for some of the work.
Wiles told the court her contract explicitly allowed her to spend up to a fifth of her time on non-research or teaching work, including science communication. She had not been asked about needing permission until this point.
In a separate email, Fraser raised concerns about her “celebrity” status.
“The term ‘Brand Siouxsie’ is now a common term in comms and marketing,” he wrote.
He also questioned her proposal to get vaccinated with Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield at the top of the Sky Tower in Auckland, saying she would be breaking lockdown rules.
Wiles said the letter was “very upsetting”. She was making regular media appearances because the country was in the middle of a vaccination drive.
“We were desperate to get people vaccinated,” Wiles said. “We were in difficult circumstances in Auckland, we knew that getting people vaccinated was the way to get us out of lockdown.”
Wiles felt that her treatment by managers was retaliation for taking legal action against her employer, the court heard.
She had filed a personal grievance earlier in the year and later filed a complaint with the Employment Relations Authority, arguing that the university was not protecting her from abuse and harassment related to her Covid-19 commentary.
Two other colleagues, physicist Shaun Hendy and researcher Kate Hannah, were also challenged on their media commentary after similarly filing legal action, Wiles said. She was suspicious of the timing of these actions and said she was not aware of anyone else who had faced such scrutiny.
The university also began monitoring Wiles’ social media at the time, and an HR manager flagged several old tweets as possibly bringing the university into disrepute.
The university’s lawyer, Philip Skelton KC, said that her claims that these measures were retaliatory and that she was being “singled out” were “disingenous”.
Monitoring her social media was a “reasonable” measure to ensure she was following her employer’s code of conduct, Skelton said to Wiles, and other measures taken by the university were simply to ensure her protection while a security review was carried out, he said.
The court also heard today from another leading Covid-19 commentator, Professor Rod Jackson.
Jackson, an epidemiologist at the University of Auckland, said he believed Wiles had played a valuable role during the pandemic, especially in communicating to a younger audience. He did not believe she had strayed outside her area of expertise, he told the court.
Jackson said his own media commentary on the pandemic “took over his life”. He worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week for around 18 months.
“Once it started it was a tsunami,” he said. “I had to turn my phone off to have dinner.”
He said he was praised for his work by his head of department but was never recognised by “the top echelons” of the university - Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater or his dean John Fraser.
“As academics, we are not looking for additional praise or any more money … but we do need to have what we are doing affirmed,” he told the court.
After raising this with Fraser in an email, he was told: “I’m a little bit surprised you think you are a special case because you are in the media.”
The response upset him, Jackson said: “I was pissed off … I’d gone way beyond the call of duty and it was seven days a week, for weeks and weeks on end, dealing with a public health crisis.”
Under cross-examination, Jackson acknowledged that he was praised in the same email by Fraser, and that Freshwater had acknowledged the harassment he had faced after speaking on Covid-19.