Whistleblowers need protection
– Gavin MacFadyen is Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit training charity, who advance education for, and public understanding of investigative journalism. The opinions expressed are his own. –
Whether the press, or even the police (if Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin has his way) succeed in unmasking the person who leaked MPs’ expense details to the Daily Telegraph, one thing which remains troubling in this story is the alleged exchange of money for those 1.2 million-or-so damning documents.
Journalist Heather Brooke, whose five-year struggle to obtain details on MPs’ expenses set this story running in the first place, described last week a “black market” created by the parliamentary culture of secrecy around this topic.
Disclosure of these documents has been delayed and delayed under Freedom of Information legislation, and was due for publication in late summer (albeit in redacted, and it is argued, selective form), before the Telegraph swooped.
There has been some speculation about how much (if anything) a story like this might have cost the newspaper but in any case, this story isn’t taking place in a vacuum.
Across the Web there are no shortage of Websites soliciting material from those who would blow the whistle on wrongdoing – who offer to line the pockets handsomely, should an exclusive be considered sufficiently newsworthy.
Regardless of the ethical rights and wrongs of “cheque-book journalism”, the existence of a black market in public interest information is a function of the lack of adequate legal protection for whistleblowers in the UK. And this in turn does violence to our civic life, and the fundamental principals of our democracy.
Most people would argue that doing your duty in the public interest should be reward enough. While this is a laudable notion, the truth of the matter is that often whistleblowers in the UK suffer career-threatening and life-changing consequences as a result of disclosure.
While we have legislation in this area, in the form of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, there is no obligation within this legislation, upon employers (or professional bodies) to implement an internal whistle-blowing procedure. Moreover, the provisions of the Act are complicated, with some restraints on external disclosure.
So what happens in practice when people blow the whistle on issues of serious public interest?
Last month, Margaret Haywood, a nurse who filmed abuse of patients at a Sussex hospital for a BBC Panorama documentary (broadcast in 2005), was struck off the Nursing and Midwifery Council. It was argued that she had breached the confidentiality of the patients whose interests she was serving, by filming without consent.
Likewise, back in 2007, David Keogh and Leo O’Connor were convicted, having tried to blow the whistle on conversations between former Prime Minister Tony Blair and president George W. Bush concerning the battle of Falluja in Iraq – information which the prosecution admitted at the time contained no “actual damage” to national security.
Present legislation is clearly insufficient to deal with the realities of whistle blowing in practice, as is evident in the lack of support available to many who seek to serve wider society by their disclosures.
Yet whistleblowers are a fundamental element in the protection of the public interest.
Without adequate support, abuse of power (from the fiddling of expenses, to the manufacture of reasons for waging war), threatens to constrain our freedoms yet further.