There is a current and growing trend among government and media to ‘sanctify’ whistleblowing as a means of ‘exposing’ supposed wrongdoings, particularly in the NHS. The Gary Walker case and others have had a high media profile and have been used to put whistleblowers on something of a pedestal.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently banned ‘gagging clauses’ in NHS contracts or severance agreements, claiming that a ‘culture of openness and transparency’ is essential for (yes, you’ve guessed it) avoiding “a repeat of the Mid Staffs scandal” – a move that was hailed by the right-wing media as a “victory for whistleblowers”.
Hunt talked of an
institutional self-defence that prevents honest acknowledgement of failure.
and said it was
vital to recognise and celebrate staff [who had] the courage and professional integrity
to ‘blow the whistle’.
If you believe the simplistic, agenda-motivated claims of the politicians, media and some ‘whistleblowers groups’, this is an unalloyed Good Thing. But is it?
A very interesting article appeared today on the Sentinel’s This is Staffordshire website run by the Sentinel newspaper. According to this article,
A MAJOR investigation is today under way to find a hospital worker behind a high-level security breach aimed at discrediting a doctor.
The article goes on to relate how someone
obtained confidential information about three stroke patients – and then posed as a nurse to write letters raising concerns about their treatment to loved-ones.
This false evidence resulted in an 18-month suspension for a brain-surgeon whose work was investigated and eventually found to be above reproach. Police are now investigating the breach, which came to light last week.
It’s currently fashionable to treat claims by whistleblowers as if they automatically deserve to be treated as if true and any questions posed about their veracity is some kind of assault from which whistleblowers should be protected.
But an allegation is just that – an allegation – and whistleblowers have no more right than anyone else to be assumed to be telling the truth if they make an accusation against anyone. They deserve the same protections as anyone else – but these do not protection from scrutiny or challenge.
Of course, many whistleblowers will be people of integrity and courage, who raise concerns even in the knowledge that they are letting themselves in for a potentially rough ride. But people are people – and people make accusations for all kinds of reasons that do not necessarily have anything to do with any objective measure of truth. If that were not the case, we’d have no reason for trials by jury and the presumption of innocence in our legal system.
In Roman times, when prosecutors could claim the entire estate of an accused person if they won their case, many malicious charges were brought for self-enrichment. In communist countries of the Soviet era, neighbours or colleagues commonly made accusations out of jealousy or to remove an obstacle to their own progression.
Attention-seeking, self-justification or pure revenge can easily be motivations for finger-pointing. The self-aggrandising ‘handles’ chosen by some whistleblowers may just be psychological compensation for the stress endured because of a genuinely noble act – but they might also be genuine causes for concern about the psychology, motivation and reliability of their claims.
Whistleblowers should be taken seriously and should not be victimised. Their claims investigated objectively – but without presumption of truth until the claims are investigated and proven.
The innate risks of attaching excessive and premature weight ‘whistleblowing’ claims are not mysterious or imperceptible. The government and the media are well aware of them – or if they are not, then they are not fit for the positions they hold.
So it’s right that we should question their motivations for the current fad of treating whistleblowers as saints instead of as ordinary, flawed, fallible human beings. Just why is it that the government and the news media are so eager to ‘expose’ problems in the NHS before it’s established whether the problems actually exist?