We like to think of ourselves as speakers of truth to power. The British national stereotype holds that we are a sturdy people, who are proud of our right to speak our minds. Our behaviour at work belies the cliche. I know good journalists at News International, but not one of them challenged a management that was presiding over a criminal conspiracy. If they had spoken plainly, their editors would have fired them and in all likelihood they would never have worked in the media again, because no other manager would want them to do to him what they had done to his predecessors.
In their complicity with their superiors, they aped the workers in the City and on Wall Street, who knew that asking awkward questions would ruin their careers.
Of course, whistleblower reprisal is not restricted to the publishing business nor to Great Britain. In the U.S., reprisal is so serious a problem that some advocates have tried to discourage whistleblowing, particularly by employees who hold security clearances. But, Cohen criticizes onlookers for lacking the courage to speak out.
After the bankrupting of the financial system and the disgrace of the Murdoch empire, we need to think of new settlements that stop the private interest in keeping your job overwhelming the public interest in free debate.
Efforts to protect whistleblowers by outlawing reprisal have failed, Cohen acknowledges, and observes:
Society cannot rely on us to draw on our own reserves of courage; instead, we need laws and regulations to compel us to be brave or suffer the consequences.
Good luck getting such laws passed. Neither the British Parliament nor the U.S. Congress seem likely to support such legislation in the absence of great public pressure. Sadly, the public doesn’t appear terribly concerned about the fate of whistleblowers. As Coleen Rowley, the former FBI whistleblower said in an interview for USA Today, “It’s the country that’s going to suffer from a lack of whistle-blower protections.”
Photo by Mitchell_Hall at Flickr (CC)