The law’s delay and the insolence of office are listed, in arguably the English language’s most sublime speech, as examples of the natural shocks that we humans will encounter, simply through the act of being born. This has not changed since Shakespeare’s day. When the wait for justice becomes unacceptably long, people look for other ways to have their case heard.
From time to time, as a ghostwriter, I am contacted by individuals who declare themselves to be whistleblowers. They have witnessed health and safety breaches, bullying, price fixing or worse, and they feel that they haven’t been heard. Each time, naturally, I carry out checks to see if their story has merit. And each time it has. There may be some self-declared whistleblowers who exaggerate, or who are fantasists, but I haven’t encountered one yet.
These whistleblowers approach me because the management has failed them, the board has failed them, the regulator has failed them, and the legal processes have failed them. It’s often said that such people ‘want their day in court’, but this only represents part of the dynamic. What they really want is to have their story heard, and believed, and for the wrongdoing to come to an end.
In theory, and especially in regulated industries, there are processes in place to ensure bad practices are highlighted and the whistleblower gets a fair hearing. This is far from guaranteed. Some law firms representing vested interests engage in tactics that seek to create a pejorative narrative around the whistleblower as an individual, distracting attention from the evidence of wrongdoing for months, or even years, in the hope that the individual will give up – which often happens. Recent research by the University of Greenwich and Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Whistleblowing, summarized in a report published in July, confirms this.
As well as the obstacles, there are the temptations. A common tactic is the bribe, tying a generous financial settlement to a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Offering a financial inducement to hide wrongdoing, sometimes including law-breaking, is not considered corruption in the criminal sense. I do not fully comprehend why.
I have become so concerned about the plight of whistleblowers in the UK that I have begun doing some work as a citizen journalist, investigating cases where the individual hasn’t come to me, but where the scandal appears to be serious and the cover-up blatant.
A lot of people seem to believe that, because major scandals are occasionally exposed – such as the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal or VW’s cheating on emissions tests – they all are; that because justice is possible, it is inevitable. In practice, most scandals are covered up, sometimes with the connivance of scientists and law firms, as well as chief executives and their spin doctors.
Those few scandals that do seep into the public consciousness, do so largely as a result of investigative journalism. In the popular imagination, the media are partisan and sensationalist, while the court process is sober and evidenced-based. In my experience of whistleblowing cases, it is the other way around. Hiring a ghostwriter or investigative journalist is cheaper than a law firm, and in some cases more effective. Trial by media can be fairer than trial by lawyers. All too often, it’s the only place left to go.
- Philip Whiteley is an author, ghostwriter, and a founder member of United Ghostwriters, www.pjwhiteley.com