The Value of Whistleblowers

I was recently invited to write an art­icle for the Nat West Busi­ness Sense online magazine about the poten­tial value and bene­fits of whis­tleblowers.  Here’s the link, and here’s the article:

The con­tro­ver­sial issue of whis­tleblow­ing has been firmly thrust into the pub­lic con­scious­ness over the last few years with the ongo­ing saga of Wikileaks.

Often whis­tleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be trait­ors, grasses or snitches.  How­ever, rather than a phe­nomenon to be feared, if handled cor­rectly whis­tleblowers can often be bene­fi­cial to their organ­isa­tions.  Allow me to explain.

I have a nod­ding acquaint­ance with the pro­cess.  In the 1990s I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for the UK domestic Secur­ity Ser­vice, gen­er­ally known as MI5, before resign­ing to help my former part­ner and col­league David Shayler blow the whistle on a cata­logue of incom­pet­ence  and crime.  As a res­ult we had to go on the run around Europe, lived in hid­ing and exile in France for 3 years, and saw our friends, fam­ily and journ­al­ists arres­ted around us.  I was also arres­ted, although never charged, and David went to prison twice for expos­ing the crimes of the spies. It was a heavy price to pay.

How­ever, it could all have been so dif­fer­ent if the UK gov­ern­ment had agreed to take his evid­ence of spy crimes, under­take to invest­ig­ate them thor­oughly, and apply the neces­sary reforms.  This would have saved us a lot of heartache, and could poten­tially have improved the work of the spies. But the government’s instinct­ive response is always to pro­tect the spies and pro­sec­ute the whis­tleblower, while the mis­takes and crimes go unin­vestig­ated and unre­solved. Or even, it often appears, to reward the mal­efact­ors with pro­mo­tions and gongs.

The dra­conian Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) imposes a blanket ban on any dis­clos­ure what­so­ever.  As a res­ult, we the cit­izens have to take it on trust that our spies work with integ­rity. There is no mean­ing­ful over­sight and no accountability.

Many good people do indeed sign up to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as they want a job that can make a dif­fer­ence and poten­tially save lives.  How­ever, once on the inside they are told to keep quiet about any eth­ical con­cerns: “don’t rock the boat, and just fol­low orders”.

In such an envir­on­ment there is no vent­il­a­tion, no account­ab­il­ity and no staff fed­er­a­tion, and this inev­it­ably leads to a gen­eral con­sensus – a bul­ly­ing “group think” men­tal­ity.  This in turn can lead to mis­takes being covered up rather than les­sons learned, and then poten­tially down a dan­ger­ous moral slide.

As a res­ult, over the last dec­ade we have seen scan­dal heaped upon intel­li­gence scan­dal, as the spies allowed their fake and politi­cised inform­a­tion to be used make a false case for an illegal war in Iraq; we have seen them des­cend into a spiral of extraordin­ary rendi­tion (ie kid­nap­ping) and tor­ture, for which they are now being sued if not pro­sec­uted; and we have seen that they facil­it­ate dodgy deals in the desert with dictators.

But it is not all bleak.  Recently, Dr Tom Fin­gar received The Sam Adams Award for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence in Oxford for his work on com­pil­ing the US National Intel­li­gence Estim­ate of 2007.  In this he sum­mar­ised the con­clu­sions of all 16 US intel­li­gence agen­cies by say­ing that Iran had ceased try­ing to develop a nuc­lear weapons cap­ab­il­ity in 2003.

There was immense polit­ical pres­sure on him to sup­press this evid­ence, but he went ahead with the report and thereby single-handedly hal­ted the US government’s rush to war with Iran.  By hav­ing the cour­age to do his job with integ­rity, Dr Fin­gar is respons­ible for sav­ing count­less lives across Iran.

In the world of intel­li­gence, where secrecy is para­mount, where crimes can hushed up, and where there is no avenue for voicing con­cern and dis­sent, it is per­haps inev­it­able that whis­tleblowers will con­tinue to emerge.

But in other sec­tors of work mis­takes can be just as life threat­en­ing and the need for expos­ure just as great.  In the UK over the last few years many senior med­ical whis­tleblowers have emerged from the NHS, detail­ing mis­takes and incom­pet­ence that have put the pub­lic at risk.  Alas, rather than learn from mis­takes made, all too often NHS bosses have either vic­tim­ised the whis­tleblowers by sus­pend­ing them or ruin­ing their repu­ta­tion, or they have insisted that they sign gag­ging orders and then covered up the mis­takes.  Neither option is a good out­come either for staff mor­ale or for patient safety.

While the cul­ture of cover-up exists, so too will whis­tleblowers. How could this be resolved, and what would be the poten­tial benefits?

If employ­ers insti­tute a cul­ture of trust and account­ab­il­ity, where employ­ees with con­cerns can be fairly heard, the appro­pri­ate action taken, and justice done, the needs and imper­at­ives behind whis­tleblow­ing would dis­ap­pear. Poten­tial prob­lems could be nipped in the bud, improv­ing pub­lic trust and con­fid­ence in the prob­ity of the organ­isa­tion and avoid­ing all the bad pub­li­city fol­low­ing a whis­tleblow­ing case.

Plus, of course, the poten­tial whis­tleblowers would have a legit­im­ate avenue to go down, rather than hav­ing to turn their lives inside out – they would no longer need to jeop­ard­ise their pro­fes­sional repu­ta­tion and all that goes with it such as career, income, social stand­ing and even, poten­tially their freedom.

Hav­ing a sound pro­ced­ure in place to address staff con­cerns strikes me as a win-win scen­ario – for staff effi­ciency and mor­ale, the organisation’s oper­a­tional cap­ab­il­ity and repu­ta­tion, and poten­tially the wider pub­lic, too.

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