In his former life, Dr Raj Mattu was an internationally recognised cardiologist. On course for a professorship in London, he nonetheless jumped at the chance to return to his home town of Coventry in 1997, to set up a medical school at Warwick University and help turn the large district Walsgrave hospital into a teaching facility. It was a choice he would live to regret.
He found problems straight away. Patient safety was at risk through broken equipment and misallocation of resources; there were factions among staff and tensions with management. In the months before he arrived, senior clinicians had narrowly failed to pass a vote of no confidence in CEO David Loughton. Little was as it should be.
As the youngest consultant but one of the best-trained, Mattu worked long hours trying to improve things. All the same, one issue kept returning: the so-called “5 in 4” system of squeezing an extra bed into cardiac wards designed for four, a policy that left essential services such as oxygen, mains electricity and suction less accessible to some patients. Already convinced this was quietly costing lives, staff including Mattu pleaded for the practice to end, but management wouldn’t listen.
When the inevitable day came, it was on Mattu’s watch. A man of 35 went into cardiac arrest and staff could neither reach the tools they needed nor rearrange the beds in time. They watched in shock as their patient’s life drained away; afterwards the furious cardiologist and two senior nurses filed a serious clinical incident report. The 5-in-4 policy was not reviewed.
Now cardiac consultants passed a vote to replace their management-friendly clinical director with Mattu, but CEO Loughton rejected their choice. Instead, Mattu was offered a pay rise, which the medic interpreted as trying to buy his silence, and refused. When the Care Quality Commission (CQC) came calling in April 2001, he was one of five clinical staff to raise the alarm. Mystifyingly, the CQC passed the complainants’ names to Loughton. Yet when its report emerged that September, chief executive Peter Homa spoke of the “worst ever [patient safety report] produced for any Trust” and an “excess death rate” of 60% (against a subsequent high of 29% at the notorious Mid Staffs).
When Loughton denounced the CQC findings, and insisted to the BBC that no one had died or been harmed because of the 5-in-4 policy, something snapped inside Mattu. After taking advice from the General Medical Council (GMC), British Medical Association and Medical Protection Society, Mattu appeared on Radio 4’s Today, revealing that, in the opinion of medical staff, at least two patients had died unnecessarily on overcrowded wards, and that management knew and had done nothing. So a whistleblower is made.
Whistleblowers have always been with us, but this century they have attained a kind of ubiquity, leading the news on a weekly basis. Last month, a whistleblower reported massive accounting irregularities at Tesco; this month it was alleged mortgage fraud on an unimaginable scale at JP Morgan Chase. As I write, allegedly dangerously lax hygiene at a dental practice in Nottingham has been revealed. And all this whileLaura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden screens at cinemas around the country.
So why now? Partly, it’s because economic self-interest has become king. If a senior executive earns £400k, or £1m, he or she has a lot to lose. A whistleblower is a threat to the business – and in UK law, a threat to a management whose first legal duty is to shareholders, rather than customers or workers. Globalisation and the internet have further loosened the old social and commercial ties.
Who are the whistleblowers, and what makes them do it when most of us don’t? The Hollywood-created image is of the awkward outsider; brave, but destined for maverick isolation anyway. In short, not like us. But most of the people I meet in the course of writing this article are essentially conservative. They spoke out because they felt they had to. The real story lies in what happened next.
Last month I sat in Raj Mattu’s kitchen, eating biscuits and drinking tea. He told me that the decision he made back in September 2001 still haunts him every day, that his lives then and now might as well belong to different people.
At medical school, he had trained with world-renowned experts, been drawn to cardiology, and risen through the ranks fast. Then came Coventry. After Mattu spoke to the BBC, management moved quickly, and a disgruntled temporary doctor levelled a charge of bullying against him. Mattu and two fellow consultants were suspended; all were prevented from talking to colleagues or the media, their disputes recast as employment matters rather than public interest disclosures.
Soon, the single complaint against Mattu had become 35, then 200, ranging from questions over his qualifications to charges of serious criminal conduct outside of work. These were sent to the GMC, CQC, the Strategic Health Authority and three different police forces; by 2009, all had been investigated and found to be false. Mattu was also subject to three separate tax inquiries, despite having undertaken no private work. In 2010, ill and suffering from depression, he was finally sacked by managers who questioned the validity of his ailments and found him “unmanageable”.
Before we met, Mattu and I spoke several times on the phone, including one conversation so full of names, dates and surreal events that I almost doubted his sanity. Two hundred charges? How could there be that much smoke without a fire? He sighed. “You clearly come from the same world I like to live in. But what you describe is not what happens. I’m not alone: there are hundreds of whistleblowers crying out for help. In fact, I’m almost unique in that I’ve come out the other end.”
Last April, 13 years after Mattu spoke up, an employment tribunal that ran for six months produced a remarkable 400-page document that detailed the systematic destruction of one man’s career by managers, some of whom remain in the NHS and one of whom, David Loughton, isnow a CBE. The report found that management had created a culture of fear, and Mattu had been victimised for raising concerns over patient safety; he will be awarded compensation. The case against him, meanwhile, is thought to have cost the NHS £6m-£10m so far.
Today Mattu betrays little bitterness, and says he was helped by a city-wide campaign. Local ska band the Selecter played a benefit and at a celebration party, attended by 1,200 people, where singer Pauline Black(a radiologist) duetted with him on the Beatles’ Let It Be and Hey Jude. Music, he thinks, has kept him sane. Two years ago, his wife Sangeeta secretly entered him for the Voice; he was invited to the heats, but didn’t find the time to go.
But there were dark times, too. The couple had wanted to start a family, but felt unable to while the case was ongoing. Now they are thinking about it. And you know what? Theirs is the happy story.
Eileen Chubb’s story reads like a lost chapter from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Sitting in her south London garden, it occurs to me that her apparent ordinariness is what makes her so remarkable. She provides a window into the mechanism of whistleblowing, and also our curious, contradictory response to those who do it.
Chubb left school at 16 and worked as a manager in a local bakery chain, before deciding on a career switch in her early 40s, following her mother into care. With no experience, she opened the phone book and called the first care home she saw. Isard House was run by Bupa for Bromley council, and she was offered a job at once, on the advanced dementia unit. “It’s hard work,” she says, “but caring for those people was a privilege, because they were special, priceless. The trick was finding a way through to them. And there always was a way.”
Chubb talks about the residents she loved: Lil, a mischievous Scot in her mid-90s with a penchant for cutlery hiding and late-night booze-and-chip expeditions. And Jessie, who could scarcely speak and was afraid of the bath, until Eileen discovered that if she sang Daisy, the fear would vanish and words would come back as she sang along.
Chubb’s appointment as team leader to another unit was bittersweet, because she had enjoyed her own and respected the staff. But when she returned to check on her friends, she found something had gone terribly awry. A new team leader seemed to spend most of her time watching television, while residents slept in their own urine and went unfed. Several times, Chubb found her shouting or pushing residents, with junior carers following suit.
Chubb raised her concerns; nothing happened. Finally, after hearing that six colleagues had done the same, she wrote to Bromley social services. Fearing a backlash, she offered the other six the chance to lie low, but they all stood by her as the horrified head of social services launched an investigation and informed police, who raided the home and made arrests. A subsequent report found painkillers had been withheld, unprescribed drugs dispensed on a whim and records falsified.
Game over? No. Bupa attacked the report; a campaign of intimidation by care home staff began, and two of the group were forced off sick with stress. A year later, an industrial tribunal found in the seven’s favour, its report a study in establishment fudge. It was later revealed that there had been no prosecutions because there had been no police investigation; the problem staff, including the team leader, had been dispersed to other Bupa homes.
Led by Chubb, the Bupa 7 refused to accept the tribunal’s ruling or any compensation payment, and rejected substantial payoffs the company offered in exchange for silence. After two years of fighting and being unable to get work in the care industry, most were in dire financial straits, despite huge public support: at one point, the local paper gave them jobs as cleaners. Undeterred, Chubb bought the Penguin Guide To Law, for £3.99, and set out to hold Bupa to account.
That was 13 years ago. Two of the seven are working in care again; the rest have rebuilt their lives around other things. Chubb runs a charity, called Compassion in Care, and is a founder of the Whistler, which fights to expose poor conditions in care homes and to help those who speak out. A powerhouse of citizen activism, she is driven not by ideology but by a simple sense of right and wrong. She dates her transformation to her first meeting with Bromley social services, when she opened her mouth to speak and was startled by the voice that emerged – clear and ice-cold with rage.
“People who didn’t know me then never believe this,” she laughs, “but I was the sort of person who didn’t make a fuss. I had a soft voice and if I had to say something, I’d say it nicely and quietly.”
There was no history of rebellion, not even at school? “Oh no, I wouldn’t get my socks dirty. I was scared of my own shadow. But those people in Isard House were easy to fight for. Someone like Jessie should have been cared for in her old age, not dragged down a corridor screaming.”
She was never tempted to take the money? “Not if they’d offered a million pounds. If the judge had awarded us money and condemned Bupa, fine, but taking the money with no admission of guilt would have been insulting all those who’d been abused. If Bupa didn’t accept responsibility, then other people in other homes would pay the price. To allow them to cover it up by paying us would have made us abusers as well.” Almost as an aside, Chubb recalls her father, a construction worker, being so deeply affected by the death of a young co-worker who drilled through a mains cable that he organised a whip-round for the family, and remonstrated so forcefully with site managers that he was out of work for some time afterwards.
She admits her new life has cost her friends, mostly because her politicised interest in the world leaves her easily bored by everyday, trivial concerns. In any case, campaigning is her life now and money is still tight. As with Raj Mattu, the most curious thing is the way former colleagues, those who had been guilty of no wrongdoing, turned on Chubb and her small cohort after they raised the alarm. I could see no sense in this behaviour, but it turned out to be key.
C Fred Alford, professor of government at the University of Maryland, is the author of Whistleblowers: Broken Lives And Organizational Power, a study into the personal impact of whistleblowing. It makes for an alarming read. Surprise discoveries include a finding that seniority offers little protection, and that it makes no difference whether a concern is first raised inside or outside the organisation. Of Alford’s three dozen-strong sample group, most lost their jobs and never worked in the same field again; many also lost their families, as court cases and tribunals dragged on for a decade and more. A majority suffered from depression, with alcoholism common. In another study, half the sample group was found to have gone bankrupt. All of this tallied with the people I talked to: the sanctity of whistleblowing may be written into law, in both the UK and US, but for most it will be a traumatic experience. “The greatest shock,” Alford says, “is what the whistleblower learns about the world – that nothing he or she believed is true.” Hence the “nuts and sluts” narrative we find in relation even to celebrated whistleblowers such as Karen Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. This is a narrative we embrace, because it makes us feel secure: they brought it on themselves.
A common cry after the financial crisis of 2008-9 was, “Why did nobody see this coming?” – but the best risk management execs had. In the US,Eileen Foster, executive vice president of fraud risk management at the giant Countrywide home loans company, saw and called the mortgage irregularities that earned CEO Angelo Mozilo a staggering $470m between 2001 and 2006 (the vanity plate on his car read FUND-EM) and would play an outsize part in sinking the US economy. She was proved spectacularly right, but claims to have had 145 job applications turned down thereafter. Her colleague Michael Winston, a board member, was similarly dumped and pilloried after refusing to write a report for Moody’s credit ratings agency that he believed would be false.
Paul Moore was head of risk management at HBOS, a holding company for the Bank of Scotland and Halifax brands. HBOS gambled on bad mortgages and payment protection insurance (PPI) and lost £10bn in 2008. It was bought by Lloyds, then rescued with £37bn of public money. HBOS did more than any other institution to bring UK banking to its knees – but it had been warned.
Moore trained as a barrister and went to work for a financial services firm in Swindon because he knew the hang-gliding would be good. From there he moved through American Express and KPMG before joining HBOS in 2002. Asked whether his job involves annoying managers, he admits that willingness to deliver unwelcome truths is important, but adds, “Risk management is not about going slowly, it’s about going as fast as you can and managing the risk. Formula One has less residual risk than angling, for instance. So I’m the risk management adviser, and the chief executive is the driver. It’s my job to say, ‘Hang on – if you carry on that way you’ll blow up the engine, or run out of fuel, or make the brakes too hot.’”
Has he often been placed in that position?
“I’ve seldom said, ‘You’re going to blow the engine up!’ But I did at HBOS.”
Alarm bells rang in late 2003, when he noticed 12% of profits were coming from the sale of mortgage PPI. He looked across the business and saw aggressive managers pressuring staff to meet wild sales targets (“We’ll never hit our sales targets selling ethically,” one told him), and non-executive directors with insufficient expertise to apply oversight. Worse, upon asking questions, he found “a cultural disposition to resist challenge, often aggressively”. Regulators were worried, too: if their insistence on raising the amount of cash HBOS had to keep in reserve had been made public, as it should have been, negative market reaction might have forced a rethink. But HBOS’s CEO, James Crosby, was also a non-executive director of the main regulatory body, the Financial Services Authority (FSA).
When HBOS paid its auditors KPMG $1.2m to investigate Moore’s claims, its report questioned not just his views, but his professionalism, integrity and stability. Already sacked by Crosby and shunned by former colleagues, Moore says he read the report and wept. “The auditors and accountants are at the rotten heart of everything,” he says. “You know, I got to the point where I actually thought they were right and I was wrong. I came to think I must be a terrible person.”
In contrast to Eileen Chubb and the Bupa 7 – and more typically of whistleblowers – Moore was on his own. For the first time in his life, he began to sweat to the point where he had to wear sanitary towels under his arms in meetings and – already a heavy drinker – he grew capable of downing a bottle of vodka in half an hour, terrifying his wife and confusing his children. He reads me a birthday card from his then 17-year-old son: “Everyone has flaws,” it says. “I like to look past the flaws and see the good in people, and there’s a lot more good in you than you give yourself credit for. I truly am proud of you and everything that you stand for, which is mainly integrity and truth. Just stay true to yourself and keep on doing what you’re doing. It’ll all work out eventually.”
Fired 10 years ago, Moore says he has gone into recovery only this year. “When I say it nearly killed me, it’s not a metaphor. I am a confident, resilient person. To crush me is a serious thing.”
Moore sued HBOS for unfair dismissal and accepted a half-million-pound settlement – in return for his silence. It was to presage the worst of his crisis: “I remember lying on my bed, seeing duty to my family on the one hand and knowing these people have got away with blue murder on the other. You’ve sold your soul to the devil.”
Later I am contacted by another casualty of the banking industry, a financial adviser in a branch who saw mis-selling by policy, reported it and was turned upon by company and colleagues. Like Moore, Lynne Edwards accepted a payoff and signed a gagging clause four years ago, encouraged by lawyers eager to be paid. Like him, she’s haunted by it. “If I knew then what I know now, about how it eats away at you and keeps going on… The bank paid their fine and carried on as before. When I go to job interviews, they ask why I left and I have to lie, so I’m still in limbo. What’s it been for?”
Perhaps most shocking is her contention that her former employers lied to regulators. On reading the FSA’s report, she tried to warn them. “But they said, the bank has been fined now, so it’s dealt with. I was referred to the whistleblowers’ helpline. It ends up being a burden: you’ve done it, you’ve blown the whistle, and that’s what you are from that point on. You’re a whistleblower.”
Kate Kenny of Queen’s University in Belfast and Harvard’s Safra Centre, author of a book about whistleblowing in the finance industry, says she has been surprised by “the amount of work that goes into a being a whistleblower”, meaning the constant reading of documents, rebutting of arguments, exposing of lies and learning about the law, all while struggling to hold your personality together: in short, by the fact that it’s a full-time job which – usually without warning – takes over your life.
Of my sense that whistleblowing is on the rise, she says: “In finance it’s too early to tell. The regulators are receiving more tipoffs, and yet no whistleblower came forward about Libor.”
Why is the psychological impact of whistleblowing so extreme? David Morgan is a psychoanalyst who works with whistleblowers, often on a pro bono basis for clients who have lost their livelihoods. “At first, when they talked about how paranoid they were and how many people were after them, I saw them very much like ordinary patients and treated them accordingly,” he says. “But after two or three months I became paranoid myself: I realised what they were talking about was real, not just a mental health issue – their lives were under threat.”
Is there a process of recovery, as with alcoholism or bereavement? “Yes, there are three stages. First, ‘I’m gonna do it’ and the excitement about standing up and being counted. Then there is disillusionment, when you realise you’ve been left standing on your own and that colleagues who said they’d stand by you haven’t. And the third stage is that any underlying psychological problem, to do with a relationship, depression or whatever, is exacerbated enormously. There’s a real feeling at this stage that they’ve lost everything.”
The therapist’s job is to help a patient find something good in their life to hang on to. Most of us like to think we would stand up and be counted when faced with wrongdoing, but the hard truth is that most of us don’t. What makes whistleblowers different? Most of us, Morgan suggests, employ psychological mechanisms such as “splitting” to manage moral conflict (in other words, we don’t think about it too much); whistleblowers don’t. This means those most inclined to do it are the least equipped to cope psychologically. They often also have a courage drawn from an ideology, religion or strong set of principles, Morgan adds, from “a sense of belonging to something greater than the organisation they work for, whether God, humanity or some broader community”.
Are there any who don’t recover? “I’ve seen people go mad, yes, and start to identify with their attackers or turn in upon themselves. It’s very frightening. People are suddenly plunged into a world they didn’t know existed, where the rules they thought applied don’t. Think about it: you do something idealistic, because you think it’s right, then you end up being seen as the corrupt one. And one can always find some reason for blaming oneself, at which point people can really struggle. Someone like Eileen Chubb, who has this huge ideological underpinning, this belief in care and compassion, is at a real advantage.”
Chubb also had a group around her and a supportive husband. What if you don’t have that? And what if you have an entire nation ranged against you? Christoph Meili is Swiss, and was working as a security guard when, on his rounds one night, he stumbled across a tranche of second world war era records in a storage room at a major insurance company. Interested in history, he looked more closely and found ledgers full of insurance policies held by German-Jewish customers up to 1945, at which point they were unilaterally frozen by the company. Of special poignancy were stacks of letters from destitute Holocaust survivors and victims’ families, begging for the policies’ terms to be met – all dismissed on spurious technical grounds. Security is a respected occupation in Switzerland and Meili could boast two degrees, but he didn’t need them to recognise these papers as significant, so he hid a handful in his coat and found a photocopier, but in the time it took the machine to warm up, he lost his nerve.
Two weeks later, he found another large stash of historical documents at the giant bank UBS, including two black ledgers detailing loans made to German companies before and during the war. Among these companies were a maker of chemicals used in concentration camps and others active at Auschwitz. As the war neared an end, corporate registrations had been transferred to Swiss banks in order to keep their assets from the Allies.
But there was worse, because Meili realised this was no archive store: it was a shredding room. He looked closer and found details of profit accrued from the “forced sale” of real estate in Berlin between 1930 and 1945 – knowledge of which banks had always denied. He knew that the Swiss government had just passed a law forbidding destruction of war records, but also that – technically at least – to take them would be theft.
He took the ledgers home, parked them on his kitchen table and went out to walk the dog. A voice in his head said, “It’s not your responsibility, this is serious, take them back” but another voice wouldn’t let him. His worried wife suggested handing the files to a Jewish cultural group she knew. So Meili did, expecting that to be that.
Two days later, a Jewish community leader pulled up in a big black Mercedes, with news that the UBS papers had been passed to financial police in Zurich. Meili was speechless. Scared. “You’re a smart guy – you’ll be OK,” the man said, but the next day Meili arrived home to find a lawyer there, inviting him downtown to make a statement, just as news arrived that he had been suspended from work. He took his wife and children (whom he’d had to scold for scribbling on the ledgers) for a burger, then stepped into a bizarre new future.
A press conference was called. Meili told reporters the information he had released belonged not just to the Jewish community, but to the public at large: “The Swiss people should know their banks were involved with Nazi corporations.” Now the world’s press was on his doorstep but, as nearly all whistleblowers will tell you, he found this comforting, because the press lent protection and support. For three weeks, Meili was a hero and the banks promised to set up a $200m fund for Holocaust victims. He met some elderly survivors who would now be helped, and he felt good. But the feeling didn’t last long.
Meili’s problems started when the US-based Anti-Defamation League arrived to present him with an award and announce the creation of a $36,000 legal defence fund in his name, while also launching a $28bn lawsuit on behalf of Holocaust victims against the banks. “The problem is that what I did wasn’t about money,” he says. “It was about history and helping the poor people whose lives had been ruined by what these banks had done. But when money came into the picture, so did politics.”
Now the Swiss public assumed him to be rich (he was unemployed and on benefits), and the mood changed, emboldening an already cagey indigenous media to weigh in with stories painting him a liar and a traitor; a turncoat who couldn’t follow orders; a gold-digger and even a Mossad agent. Then the Swiss authorities launched a judicial investigation intohim.
As with Chubb and Moore, the rightness of Meili’s actions is so clear that the narrative of his life from this point on is hard to credit. Following death threats to him and his family, an Act of Congress signed by the then president Bill Clinton granted them shelter in the US on 1 January 1997. The US Jewish community organised a stipend to help while framing a case against the banks. Meili claims to have been handed 35 humanitarian awards in the years after he blew the whistle, but still he struggled to find work. His wife left with their children; he later remarried and had another child, but struggled to support that family and, rootless, lost them, too.
Five years ago, Meili’s mother persuaded him to return to Switzerland and he sits in his small living room in Wil, near Zurich, as we Skype. When he arrived home, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation website ran a piece headed “Christoph Meili returns – as hero or villain?” which looks bizarre from all but a banker’s perspective. He has been on three different work programmes since returning and attended a mental health clinic, “because I needed some help, you know, my self-esteem was so down, I had to build myself up again.” He says his eldest daughter, now 21 and studying at an American college, has just been to visit, but that her brother won’t speak to him. He works part-time selling Bosch tools, and a third marriage has been good so far, which is perhaps why he’s able to laugh again. “But it’s not the same. I miss my kids. I’ve missed them growing up, it was taken from me.”
He has an outstanding lawsuit against a Swiss newspaper, he tells me, because every two years a tabloid returns to harass him. So he’s still a pariah? Now he softens. “Actually, it’s getting better. Every Saturday at work I have one or two people look at me and go, ‘Hey, you’re that guy!’ but most are nice about it now. After the financial crisis, they say, ‘You’re the guy that first came out against these banks.’ And then they’re happy to see me.”
Which is all to the good, but still some way short of a happy ending.
Why do we idealise whistleblowers in the abstract, yet turn on them so readily in the flesh? The loneliness and isolation that comes with the territory seems to feed our view of them as weird misfits who have merely found their natural state. In the words of one, quoted by Professor Alford in Whistleblowers, “I have seen the truth and the truth has made me odd.” That perception is self-sustaining. Why do we need it?
In search of an explanation, I wind up at the door of 81-year-old Dr Philip Zimbardo, conductor of the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, and latterly called as an expert witness to the Abu Ghraib trials. His experiment has been repeated countless times around the globe, with a multitude of variables, and is soon to be revisited in a Hollywood movie starring Billy Crudup.
Famously, Zimbardo’s study involved dividing a group of students into prisoners and guards, then monitoring their behaviour. But within six days the proceedings had to be stopped, as guards grew brutal and prisoners passive and distressed. Most surprising was the apparent fact that personality type (as tested beforehand) afforded little indication of how particular individuals would act; that the most important predictive factor was situation. In conjunction with his former classmate Stanley Milgram’s eponymous and equally groundbreaking experiment, in which test subjects were persuaded by authority figures to administer apparently painful – even fatal – electric shocks to people they believed also to be test subjects, Zimbardo’s research is compelling. Stir in fellow psychologist Solomon Asch’s finding that even the strongest-willed individuals find the burden of standing out from the crowd unbearable over time (in this case a classroom full of peers briefed to answer questions wrongly) and we have a clear picture of ourselves as social creatures who, for the most part, would rather be wrong than isolated.
What does this mean? That our healthy and necessary desire to be social can be turned against us within bad systems, or by bad leaders. Or, as Zimbardo says, “The potential for perversion is inherent in the complexity of the human mind.” Further, where our desire to be social clashes with our underlying values, “we will go to remarkable lengths to bring discrepant beliefs into some kind of functional coherence”. Which is to say, we protect ourselves by rationalising. This is precisely what the whistleblower doesn’t do.
Zimbardo has just launched an organisation called the Heroic Imagination Project, which aims to furnish people with the psychological skills they need to become whistleblowers. “Stanley [Milgram] and I were interested in the same question: how do ordinary, normal people get caught up in these awful things that keep happening, from the Holocaust to Rwanda. And part of the answer is to look at people who don’t, and find out what we can learn from them. For me, whistleblowers are people who are simply more attuned to a situation, who are able to step back, even where they’ve been closely involved in things, and go, ‘Oh my God, this is wrong. How can I stand up or speak out to try to change it?’”
Encouragingly, he thinks this can be taught. “With the project, we’re trying to train ordinary people to be willing to do the right thing. So we’re running programmes, mostly focusing on high school and college students, because we can train them in basic psychological principles that encourage them to speak out – but to take wise and effective action, not risky, not dangerous.”
Asked for a single piece of advice, he offers: “Ideally, whistleblowers should always form a small team, because when you’re a whistleblower against a powerful system, the system dismisses you as a fanatic. But if you have three people, what you’re saying becomes a point of view.”
No wonder professor Alford says that “everything you need to know about whistleblowing, you learned in kindergarten”. Perversely, he goes on to claim that this is a greater problem in individualistic western cultures than in societies where conformity is overtly valued. “Research shows that in Korea, say, they know how groupish they are,” he says. “What happens in America – you know, the land of the free and home of the brave, where the lone sheriff rides in and cleans up the town – is that we have this language of independence and we don’t have a language to talk about how utterly cowardly we are when faced with group pressure. We’re all afraid of stepping out of line. And whistleblowers don’t like it, either, which is why support groups are so terribly important.”
The good news is that whistleblower support and advocacy groups are springing up everywhere, in the UK and abroad. While writing this, I received daily updates from whistleblowingtoday.org. In the UK,compassionincare.com, thewhistler.org, whistleblower.co.uk andWhistleblowers UK all offer support to anyone courageous enough to need it. And while the UK’s ineffective public information disclosure legislation has been sunk further by the government’s introduction of £2,000-plus charges to access employment tribunals (leading to a 70% drop in the number of claims), US legislation is producing results.
Louis Clark of the Government Accountability Project (Gap) in the US, which champions public and private sector whistleblowers, describes his organisation’s tactics as being about replacing the lost “circle of support” with a new one, drawing on those who might benefit from the released information. As the aggressor agency tries to focus attention on the whistleblower, Gap turns the attention back to the original problem. At this stage, Clark tells me, it’s amazing how often relationships within the aggressor group start to break down.
Better still, US law recognises whistleblowing as positive: once a worker has been accepted into this category, sacking them becomes extremely difficult, requiring the production of “clear and convincing evidence” that it would have happened anyway. Just as importantly, the Department of Justice can and does insist that a worker be given their job back pending any court case or tribunal.
“I think whistleblowing is happening more because people believe it can make a difference,” Clark says. “These days we seldom lose a case when there’s a public hearing. And it was noticeable that the argument about Edward Snowden in the US was not over whether whistleblowing is good – it was about whether he counts as a real whistleblower. That’s a big change and in time it will change us all.”
• This article was amended on 22 November 2014 to correct a misspelling of Stanley Milgram. The article was further amended on 24 November 2014. An earlier version said the Royal Bank of Scotland merged with Halifax to form HBOS. It was the Bank of Scotland.