Think whistleblowing is a matter of telling the truth? Think again. “Successful” whistleblowing, where the protagonist actually manages to make themselves heard in the media and get the support of the public, is a matter of luck.
Last week a new whistleblower emerged to tell us about the goings-on in a well-known bank, JP Morgan. Alayne Fleischmann gave her description of how the firm handled the approaching car crash in the market for packaging and reselling mortgage debt. She joins the small but important number of fellow banking whistleblowers. From Ireland’s Jonathan Sugarman and Olivia Greene to the UK’s Paul Moore, some people did try to speak up about the misdeeds that lead to the global financial crash.
On the clock
Alayne is a little different however – she is working to a deadline. Time is running out to prosecute her former employers. Alayne would like to see convictions on the basis of wire fraud, which in the US has a 10-year statute of limitation – and it’s already been eight since she witnessed the alleged events she has described. The clock is ticking and Alayne is making an appeal for people to listen to her story.
This well-spoken securities lawyer is bravely forgoing her future career in banking by forcing herself into the limelight to make this point. Statistically, a whistleblower is unlikely to work in their industry again. As she told Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi:
The assumption they make is that I won’t blow up my life to do it… But they’re wrong about that.
Wheel of fortune
So what’s luck got to do with it? Well, if Alayne was to read the research on whistleblowing she would know that most whistleblowers’ stories are simply not heard. In the vast majority of cases, people who speak out suffer in silence, alone and unheard. There is a way of drawing the attention of the public and the media. But it is an elusive one.
Successful whistleblowers are not those with the most shocking truths, but rather they are the ones who happen to tap into a current trend. Their stories match up with what the media are excited about, what the public are angry about, or what the politicians can use for political capital at that particular time. Rather depressingly, therefore, the truth is a matter of trends.
Need convincing? Look at Rudolf Elmer, the Swiss banker who tried for years to alert the media in his own nation about his bank’s alleged role in the process of tax evasion. He became involved in a protracted dispute with his bank, which made allegations of forgery and theft against him.
He was painted as a thief and a blackmailer by journalists in Switzerland and even imprisoned for over six months. Fearful for his future and his family, Elmer agonized about what to do, until something dawned on him: the realpolitik of whistleblowing. Switzerland didn’t want to hear, but perhaps another country would.
Elmer contacted The Guardian newspaper in the UK and was welcomed warmly. The UK, and most of Europe, was trying to clamp down on the assistance Swiss banks might offer to wealthy citizens who want to avoid tax. There was an appetite here for his story, and through the newspaper, and Wikileaks, he made his story public. Elmer, in other words, tapped into a trend in the UK where there was no such appetite in Switzerland.
Many other banking whistleblowers have found that trends are important. When I was interviewing banking whistleblowers for my book on this topic, it came up again and again. For example, Paul Moore at HBOS managed to appear on the BBC’s Money programme to tell his story about the overheated sales culture at the Halifax. It was just at the time of the UK Treasury Select Committee, when the public in this country was screaming for news of why the banks had collapsed. Politicians were delighted to see him coming – and he was celebrated in the media.
While Moore suffered for his disclosures, fortuitous timing meant he could tell his story and counter any of the usual smearing by his former employer or backlash by the media. Likewise, Eileen Foster, a whistleblower at Countrywide (later Bank of America) in the US was contacted by influential TV show 60 minutes – and this was very helpful for her campaign for justice.
Back to Wall Street and Alayne’s struggle to draw attention to events at her former bank. She should try to figure out how she can tap into current political and media trends. It sounds shallow, and somewhat cynical, but when we look at other whistleblowers, it does appear that “truth” is contingent – it depends on the time and the place. Insert yourself into the news cycle and you might just avoid being crushed by the wheels.
What does this tell us about the value we place on whistleblowing? If the truth is not enough to get our attention, perhaps there is a problem with the way whistleblowers are perceived. Even the most honest whistleblowers have been seen as suspicious figures, a cultural perception that persists in our media and our institutions.
Groups that support and help whistleblowers have been trying hard to change this perception, and a great example is G.A.P.‘s Whistleblower Tour, which brings people’s real-life experiences to audiences across the United States. Transparency International Ireland has hosted similar events. Culture change is not easy, but these groups are trying.
Back to today – and whistleblowing remains something of a lottery. Is this a fair way to treat our whistleblowers; to leave their lives up to chance? Until we have a more robust system for listening to genuine public interest disclosures, it looks like this is all we’ve got.