Whistleblowing, transparency and activism

Academics, journalists, whistleblowers, advocates and members of the public gathered at The Shard for an event hosted by Warwick Business School recently to discuss the hurdles they faced in their own journeys and recent trends in whistleblowing.

Protect’s Policy Officer, Laura Fatah, attended the event arranged by academics Marianna Fotaki and Iain Munro (www.whistleblowingimpact.com) with special guest Katharine Gun. Katharine was a translator based at British intelligence agency, GCHQ, who raised concerns in 2003 over a US plot to spy on the United Nations diplomats to ‘give the Americans an edge’ in their attempts to persuade the Council to go to war with Iraq.

Katharine Gun & Official Secrets

Gun knew this wasn’t right on three counts: GCHQ was being used for political means; the aim was to achieve war, and the diplomatic processes of the UN were being corrupted. She had also privately conducted her own research; and found “no reasonable reason” for the planned invasion. However – she was bound by the Official Secrets Act.

A lack of internal options lead Gun to conclude she had no option but to go against all her training and contact the media. Her whistleblowing has been made into the recent film ‘Official Secrets’.

Although the two states of the UK and the US eventually did go to war – they did so without approval of the UN, and amid international disapproval. Katharine Gun will be remembered for revealing to the world the underhand tactics of the US and UK.

Public Interest

The ‘public interest’ and who decides what this is was a key discussion point throughout the event at the Shard. Gun noted that the public interest defence, as used by the jury to successfully dismiss the case against Clive Ponting (who blew the whistle on the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War), is no longer part of the Official Secrets Act. The public jury in that case clearly wanted to respect the societal value of the information that Ponting revealed, despite its confidential nature.

Modern Warfare

Mark Curtis, Editor of Declassified UK, spoke about the continued use of covert and potentially unlawful tactics the UK state still employs. He referred to cases when the UK is seen supporting the military operations of countries who have been found to be in breach of international law, such as the continued Saudi Arabian military assault of Yemen, the Israeli government’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and the US drone programme in Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Curtis highlights the particular difficulty whistleblowers face when raising concerns about the actions of their own government, as opposed to the vast majority of whistleblowers who raise concerns about malpractice or wrong doing in non-governmental institutions.

Trends in Whistleblowing 

Academic Iain Munro gave a brilliant summary of his recent work exploring trends in whistleblowing, and how the modern whistleblower is often supported by a network – without which they could not be effective. Members of the network include lawyers, journalists, confidants, advocates and translators. The use of technology was also discussed, and how best this can be used to securely share source material; technology has enabled the open source sharing of data with journalists and members of the global public. There is room for a genuine debate over the role of redaction in various forms of networked whistleblowing, but there is little doubt that it has played a huge role in stimulating public debate over issues including the legitimacy of recent wars, the 2008 financial crisis, offshore tax evasion and global mass surveillance.

Dave Lewis, of Middlesex University, explored the idea of pro-active protection for whistleblowers, including a protected status parallel to that of pregnant women in employment. However, this would naturally require the sacrifice of confidentiality. Ian Foxley spoke of his own ordeal, which is still on going, and how whistleblowers might learn ‘survival techniques’ from other human rights defenders. There was agreement that whistleblowers are faced with an overwhelming psychological toll and often need support.

It was a fascinating event with many interesting points put across by both whistleblowers and academics. Protect look forward to discussing the issues raised and our campaign for a new law for whistleblowing with all the delegates.

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By Laura Fatah