Free, confidential whistleblowing advice
Call us on 020 3117 2520 or email us


Member Login

Can civil servants ever blow the whistle to the press?

Josie Stewart’s case, whose hearing finished last week at London Central Employment Tribunal, was precisely about this.  

Josie became a whistleblower in December 2021, in the wake of the chaos surrounding the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. A senior official at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), she had become concerned that the government was putting vulnerable lives at risk by mishandling the evacuation of Kabul, and that those at the top of the department were providing misleading information.  

Josie decided to go to the media after a junior civil servant, Raphael Marshall, reached out to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee with evidence of Foreign Office failings. Feeling “humbled” that a junior colleague had been brave enough to speak out, Josie gave an anonymous interview and leaked emails to the BBC to corroborate what he had said. Like so many other whistleblowers, she paid a heavy price for speaking out: she was dismissed after the BBC accidentally revealed her identity by publishing unredacted emails. 

Josie revealed neither new nor genuinely sensitive information, rather confirming what was already in the public domain. What she spoke about (the evacuation of very vulnerable people from Afghanistan and the misleading statements about it) was obviously a matter of great public interest. But the FCDO’s position was that she had to be dismissed, as soon as possible. The hearing last week revealed that the FCDO considers that its civil servants should never be allowed to bypass internal channels and go straight to the press: they could think of no conceivable situation in which their civil servants could, in the public interest, disclose information to a journalist.   

This is worrying not just because whistleblowing and a free press are key to ensure accountability at the highest levels of government. Any functioning democracy needs whistleblowers to expose wrongdoing and speak truth to power.   

This ‘black-and-white’ stance is also in direct contradiction with our whistleblowing law – that Parliament back in 1998 chose to apply to workers, including civil servants. Our law specifically provides for some circumstances where workers would be protected when they go to the press, even if by doing so they would breach the confidentiality duty they owe their employer.  

The ability to go the press is even more necessary for civil servants.  If, like Josie, they have no confidence that their department will address vital concerns in the public interest, they lack an independent regulator or body outside the civil service to approach. 

If the Government were really concerned about civil servants leaking information to the press, then they would follow the Law Commission’s recommendation to create an independent statutory commissioner with broad powers to investigate public interest disclosures, along with a public interest defence for whistleblowing on national security issues.

And the FCDO should respect the law – including our whistleblowing law.  

All Blog Posts