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22 Sep, 2002

Let’s Hear It for Whistle-Blowers

Originally Published: 22 Sept 2002

At any time in any government organisation or major company, questionable decisions are being made that rattle the conscience of one of those involved in them. Behind all the public relations glitz and glamour, someone knows exactly who is trying to achieve what and why.

Unable to live with the moral and ethical side-effects of the decision, they go public in some shape or form.

The world knows them as “whistle-blowers.”

In my last column, I forecast a future alliance between the media, the courts, non-governmental organisations and whistle-blowers. All four are pretty much in the business of exposing wrong-doing, albeit in different ways. The media has its  investigative reporters, the NGOs have their respective causes and the courts have to do it as a matter of course.

But those exposed to the real dangers, those with the really strong principles and conscience, are the whistle-blowers.

The link between whistle-blowing and soul-searching was forged in May this year when former Arthur Andersen partner David Duncan decided to plead guilty to obstructing justice by ordering employees to destroy documents related to the former energy giant Enron.

He said he did this after extensive “soul searching about my intent and what was in my head at the time.” He said he had been motivated by the fear of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and civil litigation after Enron’s questionable accounting practices came to light.

Over the years, whistle-blowers have come in various shapes and forms.

The quintessential whistle-blower will probably remain Deep Throat, the man (or woman) who leaked the Watergate stories that eventually brought down the late President Richard Nixon in August 1974. He, or she, has remained anonymous over the years and probably never suffered the personal and professional risks associated with whistle-blowing. Journalists refer to such people as “informed sources.”

Amongst companies, one of the great whistle-blowers was the employee of a Swiss pharmaceutical giant who exposed how multinational companies control markets and fix prices. The story of the company’s subsequent efforts to hound and ruin him eventually became a tell-all book.

Other forms of whistle-blowing are inadvertent. Just this past week, General Electric announced that the SEC had launched an “informal investigation” into the multi-million dollar retirement package of its former chief executive Jack Welch after his estranged wife disclosed their details in a divorce filing.

Others have written and talked about the inner workings of intelligence agencies. Philip Agee, former CIA operations officer is considered the CIA’s first ideological defector, though he says Victor Marchetti was the first. Agee went on to write, CIA Diary: Inside the Company, a fascinating and yet terrifying look at how the US intelligence community operates.

Private companies are emerging on the Internet offering “free email service to help blow the whistle on fraud and misconduct anonymously, whether in the private or public sector.” Says one such website: “You can blow the whistle without any worry of becoming directly involved in any follow up investigation.”

It even offers tips on how to do it. “Do not use your work computer to send us (or any other organisation concerned with this whistle blowing) an email. We recommend that you use any of the 100’s of Internet Cafes, your own computer at home or one of the increasing number of public Internet phones available throughout the World.” The recommendation to use the computer at home did strike me as somewhat puzzling.

Government agencies dealing with organised crime have the so-called witness protection programmes under which whistle-blowers and even their family members get entire new identities to protect them from the risks they run.

Interestingly, some governments are beginning to encourage whistle-blowing in other areas.

In July 1998, the UK passed an act “to protect individuals who make certain disclosures of information in the public interest.” The Act protects workers from detrimental treatment or victimisation from their employer. It does not apply to police officers or the intelligence services.

The disclosure must relate to matters that “qualify” for protection under the Act. They include those “which the worker reasonably believes tends to show that one or more of the following matters is either happening now, took place in the past, or is likely to happen in the future: a criminal offence; the breach of a legal obligation; a miscarriage of justice; a danger to the health and safety of any individual; damage to the environment; or deliberate concealment of information tending to show any of the above five matters.”

In a way, the very existence of such encouragement serves a useful purpose. The fact that companies and government agencies never know who is a potential whistle-blower, or could become one in future, does provide some kind of safeguard against the temptation to abuse power.

Whistle-blowing is an unbelievably difficult decision, and the soul-searching involved cannot be underestimated.

It exposes those who wish to come forward to incalculable personal and professional danger, not just to the individual but to families, colleagues and friends at large. Confronted with the risks involved, especially financial ruin and personal castigation, most people prefer to look the other way and avoid bringing down the heavy-handed wrath of the powerful.

Anyone can be bribed, blackmailed or bludgeoned into submission. Others can be personally castigated as ‘traitors’ or ‘snitches’. Rather than go public, some just resign and walk away.

But everyone has a conscience, some deeper than others, and people are very very disturbed by what they see going on today. Inspite of various attempts at check-and-balance, incidents of abuse of power, corruption and greed are on the rise. As always, it is the small minority that is courageous enough to take a stand.

Providing protection for whistle-blowers is clearly an issue that Asia needs to think about, especially as the influence of multinational companies grows. It is commonly known that many MNCs invest in Asia to take advantage of lax environmental laws and poor enforcement. And don’t even begin to think of the accounting scandals just waiting to emerge.

In a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world where status and power is everything, and the value of life relatively cheap, the soul-searching that accompanies a wish to say something can simply result in silence. Which is precisely why the real forces of evil triumph.