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Whistleblowers: what have we ever done for them?

Protect legal adviser, Emma Darlow Stearn, shares some reflections on the relationship between whistleblowers and journalists inspired by ‘What have whistleblowers ever done for us?’, a panel event at the British Library. 

This week’s panel event, What have whistleblowers ever done for us? at the British Library was subject to Chatham House Rules, which means that I am prevented from sharing who said what. However, I am able to share some key takeaways from what was a thought-provoking discussion on the relationship between whistleblowers and journalists, the role of whistleblowing and the need to ensure whistleblowers are protected.  

Deftly chaired by controller of Current Affairs at ITV, and erstwhile editor of BBC’s Panorama, Tom Giles, the panel was composed of Carole Cadwalladr, the investigative journalist instrumental in uncovering the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal; Nick Davies, the investigative journalist who uncovered the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and Meirion Jones, investigations editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who won an award for his part in the Jimmy Savile revelations.  

Articulate, funny and with a collective depth of experience that could not possibly be exhausted in the hour and a half we spent together, it was illuminating to hear from the who’s who of investigative journalism about working with media whistleblowers.  

The duty of care the media owe whistleblowers was acknowledged, and there was debate about whether you are more protected if you disclose anonymously or openly. A related duty was also put forward: to maximise the impact of a whistleblower’s story, in order to better protect the whistleblower. The latter rests on the idea that if a story fizzles and dies, employers may feel they can victimise a whistleblower in retaliation for their disclosure and get away with it. Whereas, if the concerns raised have widespread media traction, employers may think twice, from a PR perspective, before treating a whistleblower badly. The power of the media and the responsibility that accompanies such power was highlighted. 

Of course, the session centred on whistleblowing and the media, but when considering the question of ‘what whistleblowers have done for us’ in a broader context, we must take into account all forms of whistleblowing.  

Those who disclose to the media are a tiny fraction of those who blow the whistle. It is therefore important that media disclosures are not taken as being the norm. Resolving workplace issues internally, where possible, is generally in everyone’s best interests. And it is what happens most of the time. Most of us (Protect legal advisers excluded) just don’t hear about it. This practical reality is reflected by the legal position: the Employment Rights Act 1996, as amended by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, makes it significantly more difficult to remain protected legally when you disclose to the media. A whistleblower must satisfy additional legal tests, beyond those required when disclosing to one’s employer or to a prescribed person (for example, a regulator). This is not to say that disclosing to the media is a bad idea but rather that in most cases, it will be a last resort. It is, accordingly, hugely important that we have a receptive, responsible media to report on whistleblowing concerns, as and when appropriate. 

I came away feeling thankful that those on the panel took their responsibility towards whistleblowers seriously. But wishing that the media, at large, took more responsibility to inform the public of the full spectrum of whistleblowing experience, to better support those who have the courage to speak up and, ultimately, to put public pressure on the Government to make much needed improvements to whistleblower protection. As the panel noted, it is not just a question of what whistleblowers have done for us but what we have done, and could do, for them. 

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