Signs of a new era of whistleblowing

The Panama Papers are only the beginning: an expert explains why technological advancements mean we’ll probably see more leaks in the future.

The recent leak of huge volumes of data from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca is just one in a series of highly publicized whistleblowing cases, exposing everything from government spying programs to questionable pharmaceutical practices. To find out more about why whistleblowers are often persecuted rather than protected and why cases of whistleblowing are on the rise, we talked to organizational behavior expert John Blenkinsopp from Hull University.

ResearchGate: Unlike WikiLeaks, the reporters behind the Panama Papers have said that they will not disclose the leaked documents in full, as they claim this would expose sensitive information of innocent private individuals. What is your opinion on the ethics behind choosing to expose or not expose such documents?

John Blenkinsopp: In general, whistleblowers are motivated to change things. So they will take the information they have to whoever can cause the change, the question of whether or not the public know may not matter to them. In the case of the Panama Papers, it seems like the person leaking the information wanted it to be in the public domain, but is relying upon reports to make that happen. So the reporters are making the judgement as to what is important. This is interesting as what gets focused on is what the reporters find interesting.

The thing is, it is quite likely that a significant number of the activities outlined in the papers are perfectly legal. The fact that people are named in the papers doesn’t necessarily mean that they have done something wrong. Not legally, and maybe not morally. So the journalists are saying that they don’t want to expose innocent people. But at some point, there will probably be the question of whether there should be full disclosure. At what point do the journalists themselves become implicitly involved in a cover-up by continuing to reserve the right to make their judgements on what the public can know?

RG: Do you believe Julian Assange, for example, was right in releasing the WikiLeaks documents?

Blenkinsopp: Assange argues that all of the information should be public, and the journalists are arguing for a certain amount of selection. People who have defended Assange have said there is little evidence that any negative effects to security or individuals have come about as a result of the documents being public. Where I have difficulties with Assange is that he seems to be completely unconcerned. You don’t get the impression that he is someone who has weighed this up and considered the consequences. Assange’s approach is full disclosure – if I get it, I post it. Whereas journalists tend to do things like checking their sources and giving the people involved the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

When WikiLeaks started, it was a useful conduit for whistleblowers to get information out there. Because whistleblowers often do feel they are at considerable risk, and using WikiLeaks distanced them from the information. The idea of being able to trace information to the source is more difficult in this format. Whereas journalists can sometimes be legally required to give up their sources.

RG: Are there any laws in place to protect or even encourage whistleblowing?

Blenkinsopp: There are laws, but most legislation requires that whistleblowers try internal programs before they go to the press. So they have to show that they exhausted all options and felt they had no alternative but to go to external agencies such as the press.

The problem is that people in these situations often don’t feel safe raising the issue internally, or they believe that nothing will happen, or that if they blow whistle that they are just alerting the organization to their knowledge of the issue. So they may go straight to external agencies, and then be shocked to discover the law won’t protect them. If cases go to court, it is often hard for people to win the case, and even if they do, the protection they receive could be quite small. So somebody might get compensation for being fired, but they then can’t find work anywhere else as they have the reputation for having blown the whistle.

One of the issues which has been raised about proposed whistleblower protection laws is that there’s an idea that whistleblowers should only be protected if their motivations are ‘good’. But, from a policy perspective, all that should matter is whether it is true or not. Why they blew the whistle is largely irrelevant. But in any case, I believe what we need is to create situations where people can raise these issues without the stakes being so high.

RG: What is your opinion of whistleblowers who have fled the countries that are persecuting them by seeking amnesty from other countries, as Snowden has done?

Blenkinsopp: Well, Snowden said, I did this, I think the government will get me, and I am not safe. For somebody like Snowden, it is difficult to judge him for what he did in retrospect, as he did what he did for a very principled reason. And he had reasons for feeling anxious. For Snowden, it is interesting to speculate on what would have happened if he stayed in the US. The initial response was basically ‘this is all wrong, it isn’t true’, so if the government had been able to get hold of him and put him on trial, what would have happened? The longer he stayed away, and the information remained in the public domain, the more the government had to admit to what they did.

RG: The whistleblower behind the Panama Papers has gone to great lengths to hide their identity. Do you believe this serves as the best protection for the whistleblower, rather than being a known figure in the public eye?

Blenkinsopp: It is an interesting idea. There’s evidence on both sides. There are whistleblowers that have been high profile, but still suffered. In the case of the Panama Papers, you could imagine some of the people named in the document would take out this person regardless of whether they are a public figure or not. So there are risks on both sides, there is no one best strategy. If you look at Snowden and Manning, both cases that happened at the same time, both became very public figures, but with very different outcomes.

RG: If the person behind the Panama Papers were to be exposed, what would likely happen to them? Would they be protected or prosecuted?

Blenkinsopp: If we assume that they wouldn’t be victims of a hitman, which you have to fear is a possibility, the question of whether they would be protected or prosecuted is an interesting one. There was a case recently where an HSBC employee blew the whistle on tax evasion, but was prosecuted nevertheless and found guilty. I found it amazing that, even with all of the embarrassment the case caused them, this person was still prosecuted – was this to discourage future whistleblowers?

In the case of the Panama Papers, you have to think about how global legal frameworks would cope with information about businesses in Panama that has been leaked in Germany, the UK – wherever. Which legal system can you make a case under? That’s another feature of the ability to transfer data so easily.

RG: With new technologies making it easier to share huge volumes of data via encrypted channels, do you perceive we will see more of these extreme whistleblowing cases in the future?

Blenkinsopp: If you think about what people who blew the whistle in the past would’ve needed to do to get that amount of data out, they would’ve had to hire a truck and carry filing cabinets out of the office, which people would have noticed them doing. So people were blowing the whistle knowing they couldn’t necessarily prove what they were saying. Whereas in this case, if you hand information over to journalists, they have the tools to go through it and get the information out there. The old idea that only a handful of very senior people could know certain things is outdated – today, potentially very large numbers of people have access to the information and could get it out. So I definitely think we’ll see more cases in the future.

Image courtesy Jon S.