Last Saturday I had a very interesting time at the Cambridge Symposium on Economic Crime. I was there with other members of a whistle blowers organisation and several of us gave a ten minute speech on our personal whistle blowing experiences in relation to economic crime. I must admit I did feel slightly disadvantaged because the economic crime I know most about (HBOS Reading) is the one thing I couldn’t mention because it’s subject to sub judice until the end of the criminal trials.
I must also admit that while my colleagues were either very eloquent and experienced at giving speeches or had taken the time to write and rehearse their speeches, I kind of hoofed it because the last few weeks have been quite hectic and I could do with 28 hours in every day. So I was very nervous. But I also felt very privileged because the whistle blowers involved with WBUK are a pretty impressive bunch and some of them are very well known for their extraordinarily brave actions exposing corruption across many sectors. You can check out some of the members on this page: Members testimonials
Anyway I did manage to make a speech. God knows I don’t need much encouragement to start giving my views on malpractice in the financial system and once I got started I could probably have gone on for hours given half a chance (fortunately for the audience I didn’t have that chance).
What really struck me about yesterday was how shocked and how interested the audience was. They really seemed to appreciate the opportunity to hear ordinary people sharing their experiences. The rooms for both of the WBUK sessions were pretty much packed and the feedback we got from the audience was incredible. In fact the organiser of the Symposium has invited us back next year to do a whole day in a bigger location because everyone was so keen to hear what we all had to say. And everyone was so complimentary!
I should explain why I found that so extraordinary. We, the whistle blowers, are not at all used to compliments. if anything, we’re used to being disliked for what we do – obviously we are disliked by the people we blow the whistle on but in general the authorities are non too keen on us either. For example, one of our members blew the whistle on very serious corruption in the police force – end result? She was kicked out of the police. Another even more tragic case was in the healthcare sector where the inability of the NHS to listen to a whistle blower who is a senior Paediatrician, later allowed the tragic death of baby P to occur (that 10 minute speech was heart breaking). She also lost her job although she fortunately has it back and is well respected for what she did. Or the case our Chairman, Colonel Ian Foxley, who blew the whistle on irregular payments between EADS and the Saudi Royals. Not a very popular decision in certain circles: see GPT
I could go on as we have collectively blown the whistle on so many totally corrupt and unethical situations. And in general we have managed to highlight very, very serious issues to the public that in many cases have had positive results. But the result for the whistle blowers has generally been very negative. Many of us have had our lives devastated – people don’t want to employ people who might blow the whistle – most of us have lost either our jobs or our businesses – in the majority of cases whistle blowers have to fight for years before anyone will even listen to them and take the issue they are raising seriously – and while the issues whistle blowers raise are crucial to a just and ethical society, we are often labelled as trouble makers.
But I realised on Saturday, when people have the opportunity to sit down and listen to our stories, they appreciate what we’ve done and are even astounded by what we’ve done. I could see a reaction by many people in our audience of complete bewilderment and incomprehension that it should be so hard to blow the whistle on situations that are blatantly wrong – not just for individuals but for society. I really felt an enormous amount of empathy for what whistle blowers do. And of course while we do meet each other and speak to whistle blowers on the WBUK help line, we rarely get the chance to collectively meet people who are totally unconnected to the world of whistle blowing.
Unfortunately the Government, with their various enquiries and reports don’t seem quite so keen on us and everyone at WBUK has been very disappointed at the Francis Report or the BIS review of existing legal frameworks for whistle blowers and I am already disappointed in advance of the PRA report of what caused HBOS to fail. But Saturday made me think that maybe, if we can keep raising the profile, it will be the public (even bankers, lawyers, accountants and even senior officials in the healthcare sector) who will help us make whistle blowing a respected and much needed voice in society. Clearly we just need to spread the word about the good whistle blowers do.
To finish, I would just like to reply to a valid point raised by an accountant in the afternoon session who suggested we (society) needs to look at both sides of the coin – i.e. someone might use whistle blowing to make malicious and unfounded allegations against another person. I didn’t get a chance to reply but let me just say – I have been one of the people manning the phones for the helpline for the last couple of months. I have heard some totally appalling stories and I mean truly shocking, from people who feel they have no option but to join the whistle blowing community. I have also heard stories that weren’t really about whistle blowing but were about personal disputes. Still serious issues but not necessarily whistle blowing. It’s not hard to identify real whistle blowers. And when I’m speaking to people on the phone, my own criteria is – is this person telling me something that will be detrimental to lots of other people if it isn’t exposed?
I would say to anyone questioning the integrity of whistle blowers and here’s the crunch – no person in their right mind would chose to be a whistle blower. No one queue’s up for the job and no one really wants the job. It’s not easy and it’s not a nice job. Sometimes it changes the entire direction of your life. It is a fact many whistle blowers need support to deal with the mental stress and anxiety resultant from their decision to try and do the right thing – and that is a support WBUK tries to give. Nervous breakdowns or depression are common complaints with whistle blowers. But all the disadvantages still doesn’t stop some people blowing the whistle on gross injustice or corruption. Thank God.
Anyway, Saturday was a really positive day for all of us and I am really encouraged to believe that by this time next year we will have an even bigger voice and support for WBUK. And we will be closer to removing the stigma of blowing the whistle. Hopefully we’ll be closer to a situation whereby whistle blowers get the kind of protection that will encourage others to come forward and blow the whistle when they see situations that should and must be flagged up for the good of society. And while my personal experience involves the financial sector, hearing the speeches on Saturday, the thought that has remained with me all week is – at all cost we must avoid a Baby P situation ever happening again. We need whistle blowers.