The need for whistleblowers

Martin Shipton of the Western Mail, whatever procedures are put in place to enable employees to raise issues of concern about their workplace, there will always be a need for whistleblowers.

"Very often, irregularities that deserve to be uncovered would remain unknown were it not for a publicly- spirited individual determined to put the malpractice or misdemeanour into the public domain.

Unfortunately, we still live in a society where official secrecy is rampant. The Freedom of Information Act, which became operational three years ago, has moved things forward but not nearly enough. Civil servants and ministers who wish to halt embarrassing disclosures have a plethora of exemptions within the Act at their disposal.

One of the most famous whistle- blowers of recent times was senior civil servant Clive Ponting, who later became an academic at Swansea University.

Ponting was angered by government “spin” at the time of the Falklands War, and especially by false information that was being perpetrated about the sinking of the Argentine naval warship General Belgrano. He leaked documents to Labour MP Tam Dalyell which proved the ship was sailing away from the British naval task force and was outside the British-imposed exclusion zone when it was attacked.

Ponting knew the only realistic way of getting what he knew into the public domain was by acting as a whistleblower. If he had not done so, it is likely that the facts he revealed would still be classified as a state secret for reasons of security.

In the circumstances, he did the only reasonable thing – and that was recognised by the jury which acquitted him when he was tried for breaching the Official Secrets Act.

Since Ponting’s case, the important role of the whistleblower has been recognised in law. Under the Public Disclosure Act 1998, employers are not allowed to take disciplinary action against workers who raise matters in good faith. Extra protection is given to employees who go to the media believing that if they went through more conventional channels, they would be victimised, with the proviso that they make the disclosure for no payment.

For many people who find out that something irregular is going on in their workplace, contacting the media seems the only option. They may send material anonymously, but sometimes they are prepared to speak out openly. It is essential that in a free society, people should have that option available. That is why it is crucial that journalists should not be obliged to reveal their sources of information.

Whistleblowers can never expect to be popular with employers, by whom they are often seen as traitors. Without them, however, it is likely there would be a great deal more injustice and even outright danger in our society."

A free and just society needs whistleblowers (, 28 January 2008)