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Whistleblowing in the wind

WHISTLEBLOWERS were the subject of September's London Freelance Branch meeting. How can we best deal with them, and protect them from retaliation? We heard from Cathy James of Public Concern At Work - whose free advice line has received 20,000 calls since 1993 - and from Andrew Bousfield, who's worked on Private Eye investigations involving health service whistleblowers.

Cathy James; © Hazel Dunlop

Cathy James

Cathy helps whistleblowers exercise their rights under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA). If the whistleblower can show a connection between their revelations and wrongdoing covered by the Act, PIDA can override the most draconian confidentiality clause in a worker's contract. "For the reasonable and honest worker who sees malpractice, there's a legal route to get compensation for dismissal." through PIDA (http://pida1998.notlong.com). A Mr Watkinson, about whom Andrew has written, got £800,000 from the NHS in Cornwall after being dismissed for reporting that managers failed to consult on changes to the service.

But it was a hard fight to get compensation due to him - "something needs be done about public sector organisations hiring lawyers to run rings around individual claimants," Cathy says. She's seen a recent 50 per cent drop in calls from financial sector workers. She suspects there's been a clampdown on confidentiality clauses.

Cathy doesn't know of anyone who's publicly blown the whistle and kept their job. "I think the law has resulted in a change in the culture," Cathy concludes: but "like measures against sex or race discrimination it takes time to have an effect." Three-quarters of people surveyed weren't aware of any whistleblowing law, or positively believed there is none.

Andrew Bousfield; © Hazel Dunlop

Andrew Bousfield

Andrew, who has worked with many whistleblowers, says a journalist dealing with a whistleblower needs the humility to understand that their source is enduring something way beyond the journalist's experience. "When you see someone die on the operating table it has a visceral effect... other people have much grittier lives than we do". If you can't deal with someone who's on an emotional roller-coaster, "don't do whistleblower stories."

The first thing a journalist dealing with a whistleblower needs, Andrew says, is the humility to understand that they're going through something that's likely outside your experience. "When you see someone die on the operating table it has a visceral effect; when you see wrongdoing, people being abused sexually or otherwise, it has a deep effect."

We need to understand "that other people have much grittier lives than we do". If you can't deal with someone who's on an emotional roller-coaster, "don't do whistleblower stories." Never expect a source to give you a perfect chronology of the story so far. It takes a long time - you can't make money from these stories very easily.

Andrew has dealt with people who had jobs in hospitals and suffered "constant character assasination" - managers were sending daily letters and emails so that their partner would see them. Their case-notes and employment records are sifted to look for anything that might discredit them. By the time they meet a journalist, their pulse is likely to be racing. Lawyers serve threats to their home addresses - they're on headed notepaper and they seem important but "are still bullshit".

No wonder, then, that "people with moral judgement will soon be an endangered species." Conscience "is being bred out of society".

Member Pennie Quinton asked how journalists can verify the accounts of such disturbed people. Sometimes, the nature of the story is that they're the sole source... Andrew confessed that "everyone's been had by the same nutters - there's three in each field." And you have to get the whistleblower's consent to go to others to corroborate the story.

A friendly MP can be a whistleblower's best friend - not least because they can ask questions under Parliamentary privilege.

Another member asked the speakers what would be the single best change in the law. Cathy has been lobbying for 10 years to be allowed to publish basic data on what claims are being made - so journalists can see the scope of the issue. Andrew is fed up with the law, and with reporting anything through official channels. "Get the documents. Remove all identifying information. Source the story to someone else if need be. Publish it."

Last modified: 06 Oct 2011 - © 2011 contributors
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