A survey of suppression of public health information by Australian governments


Correspondence to:
Professor C. D'Arcy J. Holman, School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia 6009. Fax: (08) 6488 1188; e-mail: dholman@meddent.uwa.edu.au


Background: It is cause for concern when a democratically elected government suppresses embarrassing information by hindering public health research or the publication of research findings. We conducted a survey of Australian public health academics to estimate the level of acts of suppression of research by Australian governments, to characterise these events, and to gather views on what interventions might be effective in curbing them.

Methods: A total of 302 academics in 17 institutions completed a postal questionnaire in August 2006 (46% of 652 invited). The instrument sought details of suppression events they had witnessed since 2001.

Results: There were 142 suppression events, including 85 personally experienced by 21.2% (n=64) of respondents. The rates were higher in 2005/06 than in earlier years. No State or Territory was immune from suppression. Although governments most commonly hindered research by sanitising, delaying or prohibiting publications (66% of events), no part of the research process was unaffected. Researchers commonly believed their work was targeted because it drew attention to failings in health services (48%), the health status of a vulnerable group (26%), or pointed to a harm in the environment (11%). The government agency seeking to suppress the health information mostly succeeded (87%) and, consequently, the public was left uninformed or given a false impression. Respondents identified a full range of participative, cognitive, structural and legislative control strategies.

Conclusion: The suppression of public health information is widely practised by Australian governments.

Implications: Systemic interventions are necessary to preserve the integrity of public health research conducted with government involvement.