Blowing whistles on what?

Why our uncomfortable culture wants to celebrate mavericks and whistleblowers.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

What is it with Clare Short? Not content with having been a member of the British Cabinet and of the Privy Council, possessing the kind of influence and status bestowed on very few people even in parliament, she also has to lay claim to the status of the powerless, picked-on whistleblower.

Short’s latest antics, in which she blithely informed listeners of BBC Radio Four’s Today programme that British intelligence services had bugged the UN secretary general in the run-up to the Iraq war, and then went on ITV news to unfurl and whinge about the letter from the cabinet secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, criticising her actions, confirm one of her well-known personality traits. When it comes to a battle between political loyalties and her personal ego, Clare’s ego will always win. But this episode also confirmed a disturbing, more general trend in political life today: the celebration of the maverick and the whistleblower.

The whistleblower is not a new character. Recent history provides many examples of individuals standing up to their corporate or state employer to expose a serious wrongdoing. From the thalidomide scandal of the 1970s to American Jeffrey Wigand’s exposure of Big Tobacco in the early 1990s to the notorious cases of Clive Ponting, Cathy Massiter and Sarah Tisdall, all of whom clashed with Britain’s Official Secrets Act in the 1980s, individuals have shown themselves prepared to put themselves at great personal risk for what they believe to be right.

Tisdall, for example, was a junior clerk in the Foreign Office, who was jailed for six months for leaking details about the siting of American cruise missiles to the Guardian, when the newspaper failed to protect its sources. Mavericks, meanwhile, have occupied a well-deserved place in history from Galileo onwards, courageously holding to what they understand to be true in the face of a hostile conservative consensus.

But today, whistleblowers and mavericks are everywhere – and they seem like a different breed entirely from their historical antecedents. In this past week alone, as well as Clare Short, the UK has witnessed the case of Katharine Gun, the translator from GCHQ, the security services’ main monitoring centre, taken to court under the Official Secrets Act of 1989 after leaking details of an alleged American campaign to spy on UN delegates ahead of the Iraq war, and the ongoing scandal surrounding Andrew Wakefield, the doctor at the centre of unproven claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

The UK media and political class is still reeling from the David Kelly affair, in which a civil servant told stories based on secure information to the BBC and committed suicide upon being exposed; while the US business world has never recovered from the collapse of Enron, the energy company whose dodgy accounting practices were revealed by whistleblowers in a 2002 scandal. Whistleblowing has become such a feature of corporate and political life that the UK in 1998 enacted legislation to protect whistleblowers from some of the more severe consequences of their actions, and Time magazine in 2002 adopted ‘the whistleblower’ as its ‘Person of the Year’.

But the more the whistleblower and the maverick come to dominate the news, the less major seem the ‘scandals’ that they are uncovering. As some have pointed out, Clare Short’s revelations that the UK bugged the UN hardly involved putting her head above the parapet, coming as it did straight after the collapse of the case against Katharine Gun. Gun may well have leaked the information because of a principled belief; but this seems to have been less a principled objection to GCHQ doing something out of the ordinary than because of a sudden realisation that GCHQ was, in fact, the security service. ‘Jobs were thin on the ground. It was a job’, she says of her decision to work there. ‘People don’t believe I could have been so naive, but ask many people on the street and many of them won’t realise what GCHQ does.’ (1) GCHQ being, of course, Britain’s spying centre.

From what little we know about David Kelly, despite the over-long, overblown Hutton Inquiry, it seems clear that a number of factors motivated him to talk to journalists – not least a certain disgruntlement with his career. As for the maverick MMR doctor Andrew Wakefield: this case proves that challenging the consensus and sticking to one’s own beliefs is not a good thing in itself. If one’s own beliefs are based on bad science, and challenging the consensus means confusing the public with this bad science, it is hard to see what gain there is for anything other than Wakefield’s own ego.

It almost seems like the less today’s whistleblowers reveal of scandalous importance, the more attention and approval their actions are guaranteed. What is it about today’s culture that spawns the continual procession of whistleblowers across the TV screens, and demands that in order to be taken seriously somebody must style oneself as a maverick?

It is clearly not the case that the corporate or political world is more corrupt than ever before. Who, except for the exceedingly naive, could be shocked by ‘revelations’ that UK spies bugged the UN, or that that the UK government inflated its propaganda to justify a war? Since when was the insistence on the safety of a vaccine, when study after study has failed to uncover evidence of harm, a medical scandal? Yet such is the cynicism of our times that any gripe about anything is immediately seen as warranted; and anybody who brings such a gripe is branded a hero.

The appeal that the maverick or whistleblower holds for today’s society needs to be seen in the context of the declining authority of traditional institutions. Not so very long ago, the fact that somebody was in the Cabinet, or the higher echelons of the medical establishment, or bound by the Official Secrets Act, was seen as a mark of their gravitas and trustworthiness, and the reason why they should be believed. Now, if anything, it is the opposite. Somebody at the top of society is more likely to be seen as tainted by their position and corrupted by power, with vested interests in suppressing the truth. In this climate it is the powerlessness of the maverick or whistleblower, their status as a loner pitted against powerful organisations, that endows them with status.

The extent of the cynicism with which major institutions are viewed, simply because they are major institutions, is neatly summed up by the Blairs’ ‘lifestyle guru’ Carole Caplin in the Mail on Sunday. ‘At the heart of the conventional medicine system, there exists a toxic mix of money, great power and arrogance’, she writes of Andrew Wakefield and the MMR scandal. ‘Against this, you have one man who actually believes that it is his duty as a doctor to listen to his patients.’ (2) No matter that Wakefield’s science proves nothing – as Caplin admits, ‘No one is saying Dr Wakefield has demonstrated a causal link between the MMR jab and autism’. The mere fact that he is an individual and the medical establishment is an establishment is, in these cynical times, enough to prove he is right and the victim of a powerful conspiracy.

The effect of the celebration of the whistleblower is highly destructive. Of course, corporations and political institutions do not walk on the side of the angels; of course the world is made a better place by courageous individuals prepared to risk themselves for the sake of the truth. But that is not what is going on today. Today’s culture is one that actively nurtures nay-sayers, encouraging individuals to put their own individual gripes before all other considerations of loyalty and greater responsibility, and inflating such individual gripes to the level of public-interest scandals. In this sense, Clare Short just about sums it up: a woman prepared to put the public expression of her own wobbles of conscience before any thought of party loyalty, national security, or public confidence in government.

Short’s particular brand of ego-centrism marks her out from most other members of the government, it is true; but she is only a product of New Labour. In justifying her actions through continual reference to her conscience, and making public every item of correspondence between herself and her seniors, she is only adopting a more stark expression of New Labour’s transparent, feelings-based politics.

The very fact that her self-indulgent whinging can be accepted as legitimate expressions of conscience reveals just how corroded political institutions have become, in their inability to take for granted the most minor levels of loyalty. It is the crisis of cohesion within these institutions, the collapse of shared values and a common sense of purpose, that lets individuals like Short off the leash in the first place – and means that their seniors find it impossible to rein them back in.

Whether it’s the UK government’s ridiculous agreement to holding endless inquiries into everything it does, or the medical establishment’s terror at being accused of suppressing dissent, or the intelligence services’ attempts to remodel itself along the lines of a local council, it is clear that the influence of the maverick and the whistleblower does not come from the strength of these individuals’ arguments. It stems from the inability of the traditional establishment to hold the line on the most basic principles and elements of its practice. When it comes down to it, the government gets the Clare Short it deserves. And however critical we might be of the government, the intelligence services, the medical establishment or any other institution of the state, we should recognise that there is nothing positive about this trend.

There is a debate to be had about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war. But the banal griping about who bugged the UN is not it. There is a debate to be had about the MMR controversy. But this is no more about Andrew Wakefield’s ‘conscience’ than it is about the conflicts of interest he may have had. While whistleblowers and mavericks can expose scandals and push boundaries, not all issues are resolvable through scandalising or attacking the consensus.

Yet the celebration of the whistleblower tends to reduce all discussions to this: hunches about the moral right of David against Goliath, regardless of the facts of the matter; questions of personal propriety and sleaze instead of rational debates about important issues. Implicit in all these debates is an elevation of an individual’s feelings (often misnamed ‘conscience’ in this context) over the broader principles at stake; and an attack on leadership. Because if the whistleblower, the individual at the bottom, is the hero, the villain is always the one at the top. And who would want to be in that position, tainted by association with power?

The celebration of the whistleblower is not a victory for courageous criticism, but the outcome of a corrosive cynicism. If the likes of Short and Wakefield are the heroes of our age, then something has gone badly wrong.

(1) Mail on Sunday, 29 February 2004

(2) Mail on Sunday, 29 February 2004

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Topics Politics

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