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For most whistleblowers, life is hell

Last month the Guardian published an excellent and informative article by Andrew Smith entitled Blowing It. The article looks at the perceived rise of whistleblowing, the courage of individual whistleblowers for whom the consequences have proved severe, and the support that can be given by governments and support groups.

Four whistleblowers from different fields of practice are profiled: a cardiologist who highlighted instances of mortality due to over-crowding of an emergency cardiology ward, a care worker who highlighted poor conditions in a privately run care home, a risk manager who highlighted the miss-selling of bank insurance products which has since resulted in liabilities running into the billions, and a Swiss security guard who highlighted the existence and destruction of Nazi financial and property records.

Smith’s article examines the motivation and strength of group pressure to isolate, demonize and attack the person making what are regarded as harmful revelations. One commentator advises: Ideally, whistleblowers should always form a small team, because when you’re a whistleblower against a powerful system, the system dismisses you as a fanatic. But if you have three people, what you’re saying becomes a point of view.”

The article points out three key stages in whistleblowing:First, ‘I’m gonna do it’ and the excitement about standing up and being counted. Then there is disillusionment, when you realize you’ve been left standing on your own and that colleagues who said they’d stand by you haven’t. And the third stage is that any underlying psychological problem, to do with a relationship, depression or whatever, is exacerbated enormously. There’s a real feeling at this stage that they’ve lost everything.”

Smith refers to C. Fred Alford’s book Whistleblowers: Broken Lives And Organizational Power, which points out that seniority offers little protection and that it makes no difference whether a concern is first raised inside or outside the organization.” Of a sample group of 36 whistleblowers featured: “most lost their jobs and never worked in the same field again; many also lost their families, as court cases and tribunals dragged on for a decade and more. A majority suffered from depression, with alcoholism common. In another study, half the sample group was found to have gone bankrupt.” 

Alford also observes that the greatest shock is what the whistleblower learns about the world — that nothing he or she observed is true.”

Near the end of the article, Smith points out that the approach to whistleblowing of the U.S. authorities and legislation appears to be much more proactive than that of the UK.

Perhaps one of the problems with the concept of “whistleblowing” is that the term or tag itself is too glib, is often associated with financial motivation, and fails to do justice to persons (such as those featured in the article), who in the main are motivated by a greater need to reveal dishonesty and inhumanity than a desire to bring the house down.

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Alistair Craig, a commercial barrister practicing in London, is a frequent contributor to the FCPA Blog.

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