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Work with whistleblowers

WHISTLEBLOWERS, and good practice on working with them, was the topic of May's London Freelance Branch meeting. Of her own ordeal, whistleblower Eileen Chubb told LFB, "If I had to do it again, I would." Eileen founded Compassion in Care. She recently became and investigative journalist and joined London Freelance Branch. With her was her colleague Christine England.

Eileen Chubb and Christine England; Photo: Hazel Dunlop

Eileen Chubb (right) introduces Christine England (left)

Starting work as a care assistant in a care home in Bromley 20 years ago - the first care home to outsource to BUPA - Eileen said "I loved my job." She was promoted and "everything was wonderful until I saw the first person being hit. It seemed the norm to hit people and scream at them." Eileen described how patients had money stolen from them and said there was a "ring of abusers" at work. Eileen immediately raised it with management, then "went outside the company... to Social Services".

Eileen and her then colleagues were the first group to use the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA), although she says "the law does not protect people."

Eileen was "saved by the Daily Express", who "named all the abusers" and Private Eye, who "followed it for years all the way through". (The Eye's health sector investigator Andrew Bousfield talked to London Freelance Branch in 2011: see here.)

Since Compassion in Care was set up, 5000 whistleblowers have come to it. It's been contacted by numerous workers in other sectors - the army, the police... and "education is big". The issues that cause whistleblowers to make contact are the same across sectors. There's now The Whistler, set up to deal with all the whistleblowing coming from outside the healthcare sector.

The "barriers to justice" are enormous for whistleblowers. Most are expected to represent themselves. Christine recently went to be a "McKenzie Friend" - a non-lawyer assistant - in a court in Liverpool for a registered blind person.

Eileen has "never came across a whistelblower who would take any amount of money to keep quiet". One negotiator sent by an employer told Eileen he'd been paid £70,000 to "make us settle".

Legislation, including recently-published draft EU legislation, "relies on whistleblowers following the set procedure. It really does rely on negotiation between you and the employer on how much you want to settle for to keep quiet."

Most whistleblowers are not sacked, but forced out of their jobs, their "lives made a misery". Eileen described being spat at, not being paid "by mistake" and facing "danger in a dark car park" after work.

According to Christine, "nine out of ten whistleblowers never make it to court." Harassment of whistleblowers is "very subtle" and carried out in ways that are legal. She told how she was forced out of job as a senior medical secretary at the hospital where she worked in the 1990s.

New IT introduced at the Hammersmith Hospital Trust meant thousands of patients' radiology reports went out with serious inaccuracies. Data had been "inserted" or "left out" of reports to doctors, including sending them out under the wrong patient's name. There was "jumbled text in documents... there were very often subtle errors in print-outs that only a trained eye would have spotted". She, and other staff, tried to query all this. They were told: "You don't have time to do that." The priority seemed to be "productivity". As long as management had its throughput, the "churn of reports" that went out, they were happy.

Reports giving a patient the all clear - "no recurrence seen" of cancer - were sent out for the wrong patients. Thousands of X-rays and scans were rendered unusable. (There's more background here.) Christine says that some patients also received unnecessary radiation therapy as a result of errors in their scan or X-ray reports.

Christine describes a class of "those Teflon people" - some have ministerial office, others are household names with celebrity status in the world of health - who "knew", all the way through multiple inquiries on patient safety lasting to 2000. These Teflon people somehow manage to walk away from these scandals with their reputations intact, following "whitewash enquiries." (See also Christine's ongoing efforts to get the full Cameron Report into Hammersmith Hospital's Imaging Department, June 2000 disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. The full report remains unpublished because - according to the Department of Health - it includes information given "in confidence".

Journalists have been "extremely supportive... a great help," says Eileen: "It's the journalists that can help us to save lives."

A member asked whether there were any tips from the whistleblowers themselves on good practice for journalists dealing with them? Assure them "their name will never be exposed. "

On going to the Express, Eileen recalls, "I was so scared... It's a very traumatic experience for someone who's never been to the media." Keep assuring your source they will be protected. LFB Secretary Phil Sutcliffe reminded members that the promise of anonymity includes not telling your editors your source's real name.

Eileen also says it takes time to build trust between whistleblowers and journalists. If you're working with someone who doesn't want to give their name to you, go at their pace. It took Eileen three months to get one group of whistleblowers to give names. She also recommends running the final draft of your story past your whistleblower.

Christine adds that "it's a life sentence to be a whistleblower - you will pay for it for the rest of your life", which is why source protection is so important. If you don't protect your sources, whistleblowers won't come to you and wrongdoers and abusive people will thrive.

Compassion in Care is proposing Edna's Law - named for a woman who died after abuse in a care home. As Edna had no family, she was reliant on a group of whistleblowers, the "BUPA Seven," speaking out to protect her. Edna's law would make it a criminal offence to fail to act. A draft is coming out in June, It would make a whisteblower a protected witness and wages would be paid (by the state) while they give testimony in the public interest.

  • As the Freelance regrettably doesn't have the resources to verify from primary sources by press day all the details of statements made about institutions or individuals named in the talk at May's LFB meeting, we have had to omit some of their names to avoid legal tedium. Members should have been there.