Whistleblowers – conscience of a shameless age

By | 18 October, 2019

Australia’s Department of Home Affairs – possibly one of the most brutal government agencies of the modern era – has online forms for people to dob[i] in miscreants.

You do not have to give them your name – though you’d be a fool to think they could not track you down if they wanted to. It all seems professional and necessary, even though one might have misgivings, given the department is so powerful and is run by a man such as Peter Dutton, an ex-Queensland cop turned property developer[ii].

Home Affairs are not alone; an ever-growing number of state and federal government departments have dob-in systems, a development that might once have seemed mean, divisive and decidedly un-Australian.

Back in December 2002, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that “The new culture of dobbing”  meant “ordinary members of the public are bombarded with offers to turn informant against fellow citizens”.

Sue Butler, publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, was quoted as saying dobbing was partly a matter of distance and seriousness. “Australians are now more able to convince themselves that dobbing is OK if an overriding issue of public interest is involved.”

So today, there are countless “dob-in” phone lines and online forms for everything from theft, drugs, child abuse, welfare fraud, illegal water use, dumping, even flicking cigarettes from moving cars. Telling on people who do bad things is included in primary school ethics classes and in June 2019, the Australian Tax Office predicted “we’re on track to receive over 70,000 community referrals before the end of this financial year” for tax evasion.

So, everybody is doing it in all sectors of government, but what we don’t seem to have, by all accounts, is an open, fair and – most importantly – trusted system of reporting misdeeds WITHIN government departments.

Even more hypocritically, this year the Federal Parliament passed amendments to the Corporations Act 2001 and Taxation Administration Act 1953 to provide for an expanded private sector whistleblowing scheme and a new tax affairs whistleblowing scheme, under which public companies and large proprietary companies will have until 1 January 2020 to implement a compliant whistleblowing policy. While far from providing a secure safety net for corporate whistleblowers, the legislation will give them some improved protection.

It will increase range of conduct which can be reported and receive protection, it better defines “misconduct” or an “improper state of affairs”, disclosures can be made anonymously and do not need to be made in “good faith”, although the whistleblower will still need to have reasonable grounds for their concern.

It is still, however, far from the kind of protections afforded corporate whistleblowers in other comparable democracies such as Canada, the UK, Ireland and most of Europe (including specifically the European Union), New Zealand and South Africa, among others. Many of these countries also protect public service whistleblowers. The United States has protected whistleblowers in both public service and the business world since the 19th Century, though these safeguards have often been overridden by the use of laws such as Espionage Acts, which whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden have found to their cost. (Pressfreedomtracker.us reports that Justice Department attacks on whistleblowers in the US have more than doubled under Donald Trump, with eight being investigated two-thirds through his first term, compared with eight charges brought during the whole eight years of Barack Obama’s Presidency.)

But amongst all the democratic nations protecting whistleblowers, Australia sticks out like a throbbing thumb for its obsession with secrecy and its savage aversion to protecting whistleblowers in the public service.

To find out what the people they pay to run the country are really doing, Australian citizens – often through the mediation of their media – must rely on whistleblowers, government employees driven to going public on wrongdoing because they have no other way of exposing corruption or ineptitude.

These whistleblowers have become the moral compass of Australian society.

Whistleblowers are symptomatic of the increasingly burdensome weight of secrecy laws pressing down on government agencies, squeezing the consciences of employees ordered to commit unconscionable acts until they can stand the pressure no longer and burst out into the public, into a new hell.

In the wrong place at the wrong time

In the overwhelming number of cases, the information comes to whistleblowers, not the other way around. They are, if you like, victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and no more guilty than a person hit by a car or – more pertinently – someone forced to give first aid to the broken, bloodied victim of a car crash.

Often, whistleblowers are victims too.

What do you do when you’ve been raised all your life to live by a moral creed and to call out wrongdoing? Suddenly, some information crosses your path that puts your lifetime’s integrity to the test, that demands that you act or turn away and abandon the code that everyone – especially governments and authorities – requires you abide by.

Of course, very few whistleblowing situations are black and white with a single, clear and unarguable moral path. If they were, we probably wouldn’t need whistleblowers, those in authority might do the right thing themselves.

But as British historian Lord Action said: “Power tends to corrupt”. It does not have to make decision-makers act corruptly, it can just corrupt their ability to make good judgments, inclining them to find excuses not to act, encouraging them to hide behind excuses such as “national security” or “commercial in confidence”, convinced they are suppressing their better instincts for the greater good, corrupted till they cannot tell what those better instincts ever were.

Take the case of Witness K, at the time of writing facing prison for blowing the whistle on government behaviour so morally bankrupt that in other countries it would be a case study in a public ethics course.

Briefly, Witness K (who we are not currently allowed to identify because the case against him – or her – is being conducted in secrecy) made public the fact that, while negotiating with our impoverished near neighbour East Timor over the division of billion dollar resource rights in the Timor Sea, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service bugged the Dili offices of the Timor-Leste government. These listening devices planted by Witness K’s ASIS team in 2004 would reveal Timor-Leste’s bottom line, its negotiating tactics and the competing views of cabinet members.

Remember, this was one of the world’s wealthiest and most advanced democracies negotiating against a tiny, impoverished, newly-independent ally ranked 133rd on the Human Development Index. (Australia ranks 3rd.) In any moral universe, a public servant who went to their boss with an idea to bug these negotiations would have been laughed out of the door.

What, in all that is holy in this world, led those involved, up to an including successive Australia governments, to think this was ethical?

Yet the person who eventually suffers because of that act is not the agents, their masters or the politicians who oversaw the system then and now, but the man (or woman) who exposed the government’s scandalous behaviour.

Witness K’s lawyer Barnard Collaery, who is also being prosecuted, says his client was put through “six years of seclusion, harassment and questioning”. Collaery’s own attempts to publish a book on the affair prompted threats of jail from the Australian government.

Of course, the prosecution of Witness K is not just about an infraction of Section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act, or even about avenging the embarrassment of the perpetrators and the government. It is about discouraging others. If Witness K were allowed to walk free, it would send a message to other people of conscience witnessing misdeeds and morally bankrupt behaviour that they are allowed to follow their consciences, to make their own judgments of right and wrong. This is something politicians, constantly battling their own dim voices of conscience, will never willingly allow

For in reality, while some of our political leaders are seemingly good people doing bad things and some of them are bad people doing bad things, very few of them are actually good people doing good things.

When one considers the moral compromises, deceptions and outright lies politicians use to scratch and claw their way into a full-time paid position in politics, can we be surprised?

So who can we look to for moral role models, when our politicians, senior public servants and business leaders lie to us with straight faces and, when exposed, evince no shame – often not enough to pay even the smallest token price – a mea culpa or an apology?

Whatever happened to integrity in leadership, to honour as a virtue? We live in post-shame era, a shameless age.

At a time when our political, religious and business leaders seem to exist in an ethics-free zone, whistleblowers are a moral compass.

Whistleblowers Australia captures this irony in the strapline on its website, a dictum variously attributed to Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Whistleblowing is never easy or without great risk. They are more admirable than journalists, who are generally paid for doing their job of exposing crimes and corruption, who have been trained to do it, who are committed to doing it and who are, in some cases, protected – if only by the deep pockets of their employer.

And while recent cases of the Australian Federal Police raids on the offices of the ABC and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst grabbed the headlines, the real intent was to uncover evidence against their informants. Commentators such as The Saturday Paper’s Russell Marks makes the point that governments – through their state security agencies – really don’t need to silence journalists when they can achieve the same effect by hunting down their informants and cutting off the supply of insider information at the source, whether actually as in the ‘disappearing’ of Witness K or indirectly by frightening potential whistleblowers.

The most recent development in the ABC and News Corp cases demonstrates how well Attorney General Christian Porter understands this. His cunning instructions for prosecutors to back off from pursing the media is based not on his support for a free press but his understanding that nailing their whistleblowers is a far less controversial approach than taking on the nation’s big media companies. If this was Les Miserables, Porter would play the villainous Inspector Javert.

And whistleblowers ARE a softer target than big media companies. They are often very much on their own. Almost by definition they are morally isolated within their workplace (otherwise they probably would not have needed to resort to whistleblowing). They risk their job, their livelihood, their career and their freedom. They often place their families in danger of penury and there is no insurance you can take out for whistleblowing.

The price they pay can be catastrophic. As well as the much-publicised personal costs borne by high profile whistleblowers like Assange, Snowden and Chelsea Manning, most whistleblowers suffer in silence or obscurity, either self-imposed or forced upon them, such as Witness K. Most cannot speak about the price they pay in emotional turmoil, loss of jobs, even careers, family estrangements, relationship break-ups, loss of work friends, mental anguish, the list goes on. Some survive but many others see their lives destroyed by doing battle against the big battalions of business or government.

On 5 October 2019, the Sydney Morning Herald published a self-penned article by an unnamed investment researcher who in 2015 blew the whistle on serious corporate wrongdoings within IOOF, one of Australia’s biggest financial institutions. He went public after more than a year of trying to have his evidence taken seriously, first within IOOF itself and then by government watchdogs meant to stamp out such behaviour.[iii]

From the very beginning, the effect on his life was terrible.

“No one ever trains you to be a whistleblower,” he wrote. “During this time, I felt exhausted from waking up in the middle of the night, angry, sad and terrified. I was stressed, easily agitated, grinding my teeth and having heart palpitations. I felt I was alone calling out corporate wrongdoing against a multibillion-dollar company.”

Towards the end of his nightmare, he said: “My anger had turned into frustration then sorrow and then grief, hopelessness and regret. At my lowest moment, thoughts of self-harm began to manifest. My demons were loudest at night when the lights were out and the world shuts down, my brain kept thinking.”

Looking back on his experience, he realised the pain he went through had been unavoidable. He said: “I realise mainstream Australians will, by and large, never understand what I did. I expect to be asked, ‘do you regret the path you chose to take?’ My response would be: ‘There are choices in life, but this wasn’t one of them’.”

So why do they do it?

By definition, whistleblowers are individuals taking on Big Brother, whether that be a corporation or government department, organisations that have endlessly deep pockets to pursue individuals through the courts, pockets filled with funds from shareholders or taxpayers.

Whistleblowing takes many different forms and is driven by a range of motivations from idealism through to a sense of grievance. The latter are usually dealt with harshly by companies and governments, as if the exposed wrongdoing is somehow less because the motive of the whistleblower was seemingly impure. The most maligned are often accused of being “disgruntled ex-employees”.

I was once accused of being a DEE by a spin-doctor of the corporation I had criticised in a serious of articles written after I retired. I wear it as a badge of honour, ashamed only that I hadn’t done it sooner, when I could have been a DCE (“disgruntled current employee”). In my defence, I did raise many of the issues while I was still in the corporation but, like most media companies, even public broadcasters, they did not encourage self-criticism and I fell into the easy trap of imagining that because we were an ethics-based organisation, all our actions must therefore be ethical.

But truthfully, my moral high ground is a very small patch of real estate. The corporate mouthpiece’s criticism of me was no worse than being “flogged with a warm lettuce”, as former Prime Minister Paul Keating famously quipped. Most whistleblowers suffer far more and some die for their consciences or are sentenced to a living hell.

Scientist Mordechai Vanunu spent 18 years in an Israeli prison, most of it in isolation, solely because he told a journalist something the world already knew – that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. Even after his release, he has been hounded and repeatedly re-imprisoned over many years in what he calls “Israel big state prison”.

State and corporate pursuit of whistleblowers is an all-too-common example of “shooting the messenger”, whether it be literally in authoritarian regimes like Russia or China or figuratively in countries like Israel, the United States or Australia.

So what’s the answer?

There are practical benefits to governments, businesses and other bodies to value whistleblowers, take them seriously and protect them, benefits additional to the moral imperative to root out wrongdoing and to speak truth to power.

Organisations unable to integrate internal whistleblowing as a healthy element of their structures inevitably weaken themselves. Not only do internal whistleblowers provide an invaluable source of feedback on misdeeds or simple poor performance, but their presence both symbolically and practically demonstrates to managers, staff and external observers that the organisation is open and adaptable, i.e. not suffering corporate rigor mortis. It also forces senior managers to constantly examine the rightness of their decision-making.

Boards, executives and middle managers don’t enjoy having their decisions second-guessed – often by people who don’t share their lofty overview of an issue or are unable to place it in context – and few people like appearing foolish. But a mature organisation can cope with that. Mature organisations build corporate climates that value differences of opinion and encourages individual initiative. But while most corporations and government departments subscribe to that principal, depressingly few actually practise it.

Having worked as a journalist most of my life and as a media manager for the latter part of it, I was in a unique position to view the organisations I worked for through the critical lens of journalism while being part of the decision-making structure that the journalist-me would routinely criticise. Most media organisations employ people like me and must regularly confront that paradox. Unhappily, most of them fail to cope well with criticism while simultaneously sending their journalists out to uncover the dirty secrets of others.

I can still recall many years ago, around the turn of the century, being part of a management team at SBS waiting in nail-biting trepidation for the airing of an investigation into us by Channel Nine. We generally regarded ourselves as moral people and we watched intensely while the program aired a basket of our dirty linen. At the end of the exposé we were not so much shell-shocked as relieved: we knew of many far worse practices Nine’s journalists could have exposed if they’d had our insider knowledge.

Like captives suffering Stockholm Syndrome, we became the baddies while still regarding ourselves as the guys in the white hats.

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[i] To ‘dob’ is chiefly Australian or British English slang to report (someone) for a misdemeanour (Macquarie Dictionary). A ‘dobber’ does not generally carry the same sense of opprobrium as “snitch”.

[ii]  Dutton joined the Queensland police in 1990, a year after the Fitzgerald Report highlighted the widespread corruption of the state’s force. He left after nine years. In July 2019, former attorney-general Dean Wells said “Process corruption is still rife in Queensland”.

[iii] At the end of the process, senior staff were sanctioned, the Chief Executive resigned and a NSW Supreme Court found against the company in one of its investment schemes that short-changed 4,500 small investors of $82 million.

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