Whistleblowing on sexual abuse, harassment and the cost of silence

21st November 2017

The Hollywood Harvey Weinstein scandal, followed shortly by shocking allegations at Westminister, are certainly not the first, nor will they be the last sexual misconduct scandals of their kind where powerful individuals abuse positions of power. When scandals like this are unearthed, there is always the call for the role whistleblowing can play in preventing such wrongdoing.

In sexual abuse and harassment cases it is important to remember - whistleblowers (if they have witnessed or heard of wrongdoing) are not the victim. Victims require specialist support, particularly those that have survived sexual violence. The particular needs and vulnerabilities of this group require support that is beyond the skills set of the advice line and we would be concerned about advising anyone in this situation. We would seek to find them alternative support.

We see whistleblowers as the witness who is seeking to raise what they have seen or know. In many sexual abuse or harassment cases the only people in the know are the victim and the perpetrator. However, there may be cases where there is a witness or the victim shares information with a colleague, verbal, texts, emails, etc, where that individual may consider whether they could blow the whistle. In these situations, our advice would be for the individual to tread with caution as the wishes of the victim in how to proceed should be paramount, provided this person is able to speak up for themselves (and not a vulnerable adult or child). The most sensible approach we would normally advise is for the whistleblower to support the victim’s choices, hopefully in making a complaint about their treatment.

Where the victim is a vulnerable adult or child, we would assist the individual (the whistleblower) in using local or external safeguarding or whistleblowing procedures, and particularly given the professional duties that exist in this area, strongly encourage reporting. Clearly whistleblowers play a vital role in protecting this group. Thirdly, there is the situation that currently envelops Westminster. It appears that complaints of victims regarding sexual misconduct of many alleged perpetrators was reported by the victims and not acted on. The role for the whistleblower here is more complex. It does not seem there were many witnesses to the misconduct itself, but there will have been those in the system that were aware that complaints were not being taken seriously and that there were a lot of complaints, indicating a dangerous cultural issue. Our advice to these individuals may again have to take careful note of whether the victims still wish to pursue their complaint, or how, but we would also consider what wider mechanisms there are available to place pressure on those responsible to address the complaints. Where we may have to proceed with caution will be where an individual is only aware of rumour or has not checked whether victims they are attempting to support, will indeed come forward with their complaint when needed.

Lastly, there is the more prolonged and predatory sexual behaviour of one person, as in the case of Jimmy Savile or Harvey Weinstein. What is challenging for the potential whistleblower in these circumstances is that often the information is second hand reports or industry knowledge. The information is a badly kept secret, yet no one part of the system is comfortable or feels responsible for challenging it. Individuals who first become aware of the situation may quickly come across ingrained attitudes of acceptance on unwillingness to tackle. Some parts of the system even benefit too much from the high profile perpetrator to risk their exposure. These individuals will be the whistleblowers facing the most serious challenge as it is likely they will have to progress their concerns outside the organisation or system. Further that many of those that have accepted or turned a blind eye, will have a vested interest in discrediting or silencing them to protect their own reputations. In this situation the whistleblower will place a crucial role in speaking up for victims. There will be those that are harrowed by their failure to speak up, such as director Quentin Tarantino who told the New York Times“I knew enough to do more than I did….I wish I had taken responsibility for what I heard”. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg has spoken about the heavy toll of knowing and not acting on it, saying, ‘Doesn’t being a bystander bring with it the responsibility of telling the truth, however personally disgraceful it may be?’

We will continue to highlight to individuals who are unsure whether to speak up that in the end, the cost of silence can be too high, both for the public good and your personal integrity.