As the impeachment process gathers speed in Washington, President Donald Trump has attacked the whistleblower at the heart of allegations surrounding his phone call with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Trump reportedly told the audience at a private event in late September that the whistleblowers should be regarded as “almost a spy” for their “treasonous” acts of exposing his alleged impropriety. Such language is a classic example of “stigmatisation” used by those at fault to deflect attention away from themselves and back at their accuser.
If whistleblowing is to succeed, it relies upon credibility, which in turn is founded on the validity of the evidence and the trustworthiness of the person disclosing it. While organisations or regimes might not easily refute documented evidence, they can more easily damage or destroy a reputation, and with it the credibility of an individual whistleblower. But if the character and evidence of the whistleblower are believed then organisations and their leaders stand to have their own reputations damaged and face potentially enormous commercial, political and economic losses.
I have personal experience of this process. In 2010, I made a confidential disclosure about large-scale corruption in British government defence contracts in Saudi Arabia to the UK Ministry of Defence, who exposed me to the defence contractor I was employed by, GPT, resulting in my dismissal from the company. The UK’s Serious Fraud Office requested consent to prosecute from the attorney general in July 2018 and Transparency International and Spotlight on Corruption are now asking him to justify the delay.
While the immediate loss of my job and source of income were devastating, the real damage came from the ensuing professional and personal “stigmatisation” of being someone not to be trusted, a loose cannon who cannot be relied on, and who is therefore unemployable.
After co-founding the whistleblower support organisation, Whistleblowers UK in 2012, I went on to research the whistleblower dilemma as an element of the human right of freedom of expression. My PhD research is looking at why people do not blow the whistle. Although my investigations are still ongoing, it’s already clear that the primary deterrent to speaking out is fear: fear of losing one’s job, income, mental and physical health and domestic peace.
It’s this fear that becomes a weapon in the hands of the unscrupulous and ruthless. While the initial wounds against whistleblowers who are uncovered are inflicted at work, the deeper damage and deterrents are accomplished through personal and professional reputational stigma. This phenomenon is reflected across all sectors of society, including the NHS, not just the business world.
The issue of disclosing wrongdoing rapidly escalates into a war of reputations as a matter of survival for both the whistleblower and organisation, where stigmatisation becomes a key weapon in a battle for public credibility. As the sovereign or corporate entity uses the full range of its soft and hard resources to diminish the threat, it often reduces the credibility of the witness, and therefore their evidence, deterring others from following a similar path.
One high-profile example of this was the action of Jes Staley, chief executive of Barclays, who in 2016 made repeated attempts to unveil an anonymous whistleblower at the bank. Staley was fined £642,000 by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority and Prudential Regulation Authority for his misdemeanour.
It’s actions like this, or the threat of being unveiled, which my research shows can deter others from making disclosures because of the fear of future recrimination.
On the attack
As a result, stigmatisation of the whistleblower often becomes an essential element of the organisation’s defensive strategy. After all, who wants to be known as a “snitch” or a “spy” or even a “traitor”?
Trump has stuck to this playbook. In November, he sought to portray the whistleblower as an insignificant informer acting out of grudge rather than a sense of duty.
This was purposely styled to induce a cynical scepticism in the minds of the public about the true motives of the whistleblower, in contrast to the allegations they are bringing forward about inappropriate behaviour. Trump’s demand for personal fealty from former FBI head James Comey back in 2017, already revealed how the president prioritises personal loyalty over morality from those working for his administration.
It is this fundamental contest between loyalty to the organisation and honest disclosure of wrongdoing to a wider society that lies at the heart of the whistleblower dilemma for organisations. Confidentiality of the whistleblower’s identity is the first line of protection against those in power who seek to destroy those who dare speak about organisational wrong-doing.
Without such confidentiality, the powerful cannot be held to account by the vulnerable. And if that becomes the norm, we run the risk of descending into a pit of immorality. As the philosopher Edmund Burke noted: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”