Journal Entry: Sat Jul 18, 2015, 3:43 PM
Every country needs its whistleblowers. They are crucial to a healthy society. The employee who, in the public interest, has the independence of judgment and the personal courage to challenge malpractice or illegality is a kind of public hero.
Whistleblowing is relevant in the UK now more than ever, as the recent wave of high profile cover-ups and the relentless clamp downs on truth tellers has shown. The Hillsborough Inquiry, the string of serious problems in the NHS and related health agencies, the recently revealed Ministry of Defence internal document gagging whistleblowers from revealing wrongdoing to their own MPs. The list of examples goes on and on. They illustrate exactly why we need whistleblowers in society in the first place.
Moreover, as Robert Francis QC reported, in any huge and bureaucratic organisation like the NHS, whistleblowers are far more likely to be resented than respected, as Helene Donnelly, the nurse who protested about the failings in care at Mid Staffs. Far from having their names embossed on a roll of honour, Francis found that the doctors and nurses and other NHS staff who reported their anxieties about failings in patient care had been shunned, suspended or even sacked by hospital bosses. Many were left struggling to find a new job. Some have been driven to contemplate suicide.
In 2014, a lawyer working for HMRC found that his boss, David Hartnett, was having "sweetheart" sessions with Goldman Sachs allowing the bank to avoid £10m in interest on tax. He thought this out of order and did what the rulebook said. Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) he wrote privately to the national audit office and to a committee of parliament. When HMRC found out, it went berserk. Using the anti-terrorist Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), it had his belongings, emails and phone calls searched. He was suspended and left "a broken man". He lost his job.
In same year, the policeman who blew the whistle on the Metropolitan police's massaging of crime figures was driven to resign, citing his "treatment as a result of making disclosures in good faith and in the public interest". He had been placed under police investigation for "misconduct".
The reality is that all organisations hate having their inner workings exposed, the more so if it incurs collective odium and risks jobs. The wagons gather into a circle to defend a wounded superior. More to the point, whistleblowers don't have to be employees; they can be members of a school or religious community organisation, for example. A good example of this is the whistleblowers who stepped forward to confirm incidents of paedophilia in religious institutions over the past decade.
Governments are now also frequently turning technology inward to spy on employees and others in an effort to thwart whistleblowing to the media. So while whistleblowing has become easier, spying technology has also made it riskier to do online.
Whistleblowing tends to go hand in hand with coverups. The independent panel investigating the Hillsborough tragedy in which 96 football fans died found that police had not only lied about what happened, they had deliberately altered evidence of those who tried to tell the truth. Public outrage at the cover up was so immense prime minister David Cameron had to apologise to the victims' families.
In the United States, whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Jor Darby forced to choose between allegiance to the flag and uniform, and loyalty to the ideals the flag is supposed to represent and the uniform is supposed to defend, they chose the latter. Their defiance stems from the fact that, in acting as they have, they don't believe they've let down America. They believe they had to act because America was letting itself down.
It's clear whistleblowing is an important part of a participatory democracy, yet many still remain puzzled about what value governments and legal scholars place on it. Time will tell what influence cases such as the NHS and Wikileaks will have on this value, but one thing seems likely – despite facing often iron-fisted measures, whistleblowers are increasingly winning public support.