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Leaking in the public interest

By Brian Martin - posted Monday, 16 February 2015


Whistleblowers make an amazing contribution to society. They speak out in the public interest about corruption, abuse and hazards to the public, drawing attention to problems that need fixing. But they often suffer reprisals, paying an enormous penalty for their valuable efforts. I now recommend leaking whenever possible.

In the late 1970s, I started studying suppression of dissent. Then in the early 1990s Whistleblowers Australia - a self-help and mutual-help organisation for whistleblowers - was set up. I became involved, including serving as president for several years. Having talked with hundreds of whistleblowers, I found their stories to be remarkably similar.

Whistleblowers are often conscientious employees who see some problem at work and report it to their bosses. Many don't even think of themselves as whistleblowers – in their minds, they are just doing their jobs. Then reprisals begin, for example ostracism, petty harassment, referral to psychiatrists, reprimands, demotion and dismissal.

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Years ago, many employees subject to this sort of treatment couldn't understand what was happening. Some blamed themselves. Then someone would say, "You're a whistleblower". They looked up whistleblowing in the phone directory and ended up talking to one of us in Whistleblowers Australia.

Things have changed. Whistleblowing stories are now common in news coverage, so people better understand what's involved. The status of whistleblowing has increased, and there are laws that are supposed to protect whistleblowers. Unfortunately, these laws seldom provide much protection.

Long ago I lost count of the number of whistleblowers who told me they had sought help from some agency or official process such as higher management, grievance procedures, ombudsman, auditor-general, politicians and courts. They nearly always said the official processes hadn't helped them. Of course my sample is biased, because if official channels worked, there would be no need to contact Whistleblowers Australia. However, there's research showing that whistleblowers report being helped in only one out of ten approaches to agencies.

Rather than rely on official channels, my usual advice has been to mobilise support. This includes collecting masses of evidence, writing a cogent summary of the problem, contacting sympathetic co-workers and friends, and using publicity to generate concern and action.

To avoid having to repeat the same advice, I wrote a handbook for whistleblowers, published in 1999. Years passed, and then my friend Jørgen Johansen said I should prepare a new edition and he would publish it. It's titled Whistleblowing: A Practical Guide.

One important thing had changed in the intervening years: leaking has come on to the public agenda, due especially to the emergence of WikiLeaks and to Edward Snowden's revelations.

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For a whistleblower, anonymous leaking has two great advantages. First, it avoids reprisals. Second, you can remain on the job, collect more information and continue to leak.

There is a giant hypocrisy involved in official attitudes towards leaking. Leaking in the public interest is detested, and police may be called in to search for leakers. But leaking to journalists and lobbyists by politicians and high-level public servants, to serve personal or political agendas, is routine and never prosecuted.

Recently, the government's antipathy towards leaking in the public interest has reached new heights, with laws that could put whistleblowers and journalists in prison for years. So on the one hand the federal government passes a whistleblower protection law but on the other hand passes a law with extreme penalties for national security whistleblowers.

Some employees might feel leaking is wrong because they signed a confidentiality agreement as part of their employment contract. Well, so did top public servants, but the law is hardly ever enforced against them. As well, it should be considered a moral obligation to report crimes, overriding any rules or laws to keep quiet.

Because the risks of reprisals are so great for whistleblowers, it seems sensible to me to leak when possible. I recently wrote an article [link: http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/rr/leaking.pdf] spelling out the practical and political considerations involved.

To leak effectively requires skill, patience and good sense. It is not easy, but it can be effective. In my view, if the government was really serious about free speech, it would teach everyone how to leak in the public interest.

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About the Author

Brian Martin is vice president of Whistleblowers Australia and author of The Whistleblower's Handbook and many other publications on whistleblowing and dissent. He runs a large website on suppression of dissent: http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/.

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