In the wake of the final report by the Mahon Tribunal, Elizabeth O’Malley examines the role played by whistle-blowers in unearthing corruption
Despite the outcries against the rampant corruption seen in governments and corporations around the globe, it’s often those with the courage to speak out who suffer the most. Those who dare to speak out against abuses can lose their jobs, find themselves ostracised from their profession, or even put their lives at risk. There is very little in place to protect them, and their bravery often goes ignored by the public.
The Mahon Report is perhaps the most damning indictment of a culture that existed in Ireland over the last decade – as long as a profit was being made, it didn’t matter how. This was true of government, banking and business. “It continued because nobody was prepared to do enough to stop it. This is perhaps inevitable when corruption ceases to become an isolated event and becomes so entrenched that it is transformed into an acknowledged way of doing business,” Judge Mahon concluded in the report. The long, costly, but ultimately necessary process of tribunals began when James Gogarty, a former Garda and senior construction worker, revealed that his firm had bribed senior government minister, Ray Burke. Without whistle-blowers like Gogarty and dozens of others to give testimony about this state of affairs, we may never have discovered the degree to which corruption had become “endemic and systemic” in our political system.
The economic downturn, the failure of ‘light touch’ regulation, and revelations of corporate corruption have acted as a catalyst in the search for transparency. In America this has been characterised by the creation of Wikileaks and the release of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the extent to which the American government had lied to its people and congress about the Vietnam War. In Britain, we have seen revelations of phone hacking by the News of the World, and the parliamentary expenses scandal.
However, the unfortunate truth is that there are thousands of abuses perpetrated at all levels of organisations, businesses, and governments that go unreported. This can be for a number of reasons; fear of reprisal, misplaced loyalty, or the belief that blowing the whistle is equivalent to being a snitch.
Most importantly, there exists a negative attitude to whistle-blowing. Sometimes exposing problems within a system can be rewarding, as was the case with Jesselyn Radack, who exposed the ethical violations in the interrogation of suspected terrorist, John Walker Lindh, by the FBI. Since then, Radack has been promoted to the position of national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project in Washington.
However not everyone is so lucky. Thomas Drake, a former senior official at the National Security Agency, spoke out against illegal surveillance of millions of Americans that had been implemented in the Bush era. Although the felony suit against him was later dropped, he lost his job, his retirement savings, and is seen by many as betraying his country. Many whistle-blowers report that there exists a widespread ‘shoot the messenger’ mentality by corporations and government departments.
One of the recommendations made in the Mahon report was creating more robust whistle-blower legislation. The upcoming ‘Protected Disclosures in the Public Interest Bill’, known commonly as the Whistle-Blowers Bill, has been cited by Minister Brendan Howlin as being the best in the world. It is based on the existing models in South Africa, New Zealand and Britain. The comprehensive bill includes protections from any penalisation by their employer, including harassment, dismissal, discrimination or any threat of reprisal. The proposed Electoral Amendment Bill, which proposes donation limits and registering lobbyists, also displays a move in a promising direction.
While all legal protections are welcomed, this may not go far enough to tackle the perception of whistle-blowers. The decision to report on an employer is not one made in a vacuum, but it is heavily based on external factors, such as fear of ill-treatment, belief that the wrong-doing is ‘run of the mill’, or ‘needed to get something done’, or, indeed, beneficial to the employee.
More needs to be done to change our attitudes towards corruption. Not only does the Mahon Report condemn politicians, developers, and the business elite, but it also denounces the wilful ignorance on the part of ordinary citizens and points out the “general apathy on the part of the public towards . . . corruption.”
We can no longer call ourselves a democracy if we allow the rule of law to be undermined consistently by those who believe themselves to be above the law. We can no longer afford a culture of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ and business as usual. We need to accept our personal responsibility to stand up and expose abuse when we see it. As a country we need to take a long look at ourselves and make the decision not to let the wave of anger pass without some kind of change.