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Will the BBC learn to listen to whistleblowers?

Lord Dyson’s inquiry into Martin Bashir and the BBC has found that not only did Bashir commit a “serious breach” of BBC rules, he also found the BBC fell short of “integrity and transparency” in its failure to conduct a thorough investigation into Bashir’s conduct; their cover-up into such facts, and their failure to disclose this and the investigation on relevant news programmes.

The alarm was raised to BBC managers and executives on countless occasions. The whistleblower at the centre of it all, graphic designer Matt Wiessler, says he raised his concerns the day after the interview was aired, and did so on four occasions to BBC managers, but was ignored. Mark Killick, a former producer for Panorama, also raised his concerns about Bashir’s conduct to a BBC lawyer, then subsequently to management, but he too was initially ignored.

What these whistleblowers have in common is the response they received from their employer – nonchalance followed by damage to their reputation. Lord Dyson in his report praised Wiessler for acting  “responsibly and appropriately” in reporting his concerns – which is how employers should be responding to staff who speak-up about potential wrongdoing.

Conservative MP and chair of the Commons Culture and Media Committee, Julian Knight, has written to BBC Director General Tim Davie suggesting the BBC should consider paying compensation to the whistleblowers affected by this scandal. Whilst this would be a positive step forward in acknowledging whistleblowers who were wrongly treated and remedy career losses, albeit to a limited extent, it would come far too late and do little to restore trust and confidence amongst whistleblowers within the BBC.

The BBC have pledged the organisation is ‘different now from how it was in 1995’ with stronger governance and whistleblowing processes in place. However, the Board has nonetheless commissioned a review into the effectiveness of its editorial policies and governance in relation to whistleblowing. Whilst this is promising, moving forward the BBC must ensure they are able to restore trust and confidence amongst whistleblowers and provide reassurances that the culture within the organisation has indeed changed. This could start with senior leaders and the tone set from the top in taking positive steps in promoting an active speak-up culture, and identifying where the gaps lie in their current arrangements.

Far too often employers ignore wrongdoing from the very moment it is raised. The BBC could have averted catastrophic reputational and institutional damage it is currently suffering as well as untold upset and grief to the Royal family. It is in the interests of the business as much as it is in the interest of the public for whistleblowers to be listened to, and for whistleblowing concerns to be effectively investigated and dealt with.

Currently, the law on whistleblowing, the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA), provides recourse for whistleblowers to enforce their rights in an employment tribunal only after a whistleblower suffers detrimental treatment or dismissal for whistleblowing. The law is silent on providing positive obligations on employers to act on concerns or to actively prevent the risk of victimisation for whistleblowers. Protect’s legal reform campaign, Let’s Fix UK Whistleblowing Law calls for higher standards to be placed on employers. This would include establishing required internal reporting channels as well as taking protective measures to prevent victimisation towards a whistleblower. These reforms would ensure employers are more pro-active in how they engage with whistleblowing concerns and in the treatment towards whistleblowers, without having to leave individuals to police their own rights.

Our unique benchmark tool may be an ideal way for the BBC to independently assess where there are still gaps, and where it can improve its arrangements. No one is better placed than Protect to offer an independent view – based on our knowledge from supporting 45,000 whistleblowers, and helping thousands of employers on their journey to best practice.  Protect has written to director general Tim Davie to offer our expert support to develop best practice within the organisation.