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Whistleblowers – the lifeblood of democracy  

Brittany Winner, the sister of intelligence whistleblower Reality Winner, renowned Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and US whistleblowing lawyer, Mary Inman all came together to take part in a webinar hosted by journalist Martin Bright, Editor of the Index on Censorship, an organisation campaigning for freedom of expression to discuss the effect whistleblowers have on democracy, 

The webinar, “Whistleblowers: The Lifeblood of Democracy” started with the panellists Daniel Ellsberg and Brittany Winner discussing how the impact of whistleblowing in United States democracy. Ellsberg explained how he thought that the absence of whistleblowing was dangerous to democracy, saying, “When you talk about whistleblowers being the lifeblood of democracy—that is true – but that wouldn’t suggest democracy has a long life ahead of it—democracy has low blood pressure here: the absence of whistleblowing is very dangerous to democracy”.  

Brittany Winner talked about the psychology of whistleblowers and the affect on their family. Her sister, Reality winner was jailed in 2018 for providing classified documents on alleged Russian election hacking to the Intercept website. She explained from the moment Reality was arrested, her family was  thrust into the spotlight, none of them were prepared for. The public started to paint Reality as a terrorist, and after being harassed by the media, the U.S. government, and being isolated in prison, Reality started to internalise public opinion and began to think that she did do something bad and deserved to be in prison. Outside of the prison cell, it was proved the leaked documents had not been harmful to the government or the public, but had in fact showed the 2016 presidential election was influenced by the Russians. US security officials confirmed the 2020 presidential election went on to be one of the safest elections in modern history, despite voter fraud conspiracy theories being spread by former President Donald Trump.

Daniel Ellsberg agreed with Brittany on the effect whistleblowing has on the family and marriages and said, “the pressure that it puts on the family is fatal…” and said marriages were badly affected after serious whistleblowing cases with many crumbling 18 months post-whistleblowing. 

The conversation moved to the U.S. government and its power to shift public opinion of the whistleblower and their actions from good to bad. Reality was deemed a ‘bad whistleblower’ because she was a 25-year-old woman who criticised the former president Trump on her personal social media accounts. The government used Reality as an example to deter other leakers in the Trump era. But whistleblower lawyer Mary Inman said, “The U.S. loves whistleblowers when they help the government expose wrongdoing outside of the government…the U.S. is hypocritical on how they treat whistleblowers”. 

With the overhaul of the UK’s Official Secrets Act (OSA) underway, many questions were raised in the webinar about the opinions of the panellists on this reform. Martin Bright, the host of the event,  said that in most cases, there has been a defacto defense because juries don’t like to convict OSA cases. The government will take these cases to the wire, then withdraw last minute, as was the case of Katherine Gun, the famous whistleblower whose actions affected the UN security council and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. 

The webinar raised important questions about the role of whistleblowers in democracy, the psychological burdens that come with whistleblowing, and the government’s role in protecting and harming whistleblowers.  

 By Millie Camp

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