Success for Whistleblowers: Quiet Justice, Not Public Failure

By Mark Worth: Executive Director of Whistleblowing International and                              the European Center for Whistleblower Rights

Hero. Model citizen. Martyr. Victim.

Whistleblowers are known by many names. These perfectly fit Edward Snowden, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Julian Assange, three of the most famous and influential whistleblowers of our time.

These descriptors also are well-suited for the media. Reporters, editors and publishers – most of whom measure their success nowadays by clicks, likes and shares – write sensationalistic headlines to hype the courage and sacrifice of people who risk their careers and personal safety to expose corruption.

But is fame a good thing for a whistleblower?

What’s good for the media, though, is almost always bad for the whistleblower. We have documented many instances of journalists who coaxed whistleblowers into going public with their disclosures and baring their personal stories. This serves the reader, not the whistleblower. Journalists prey on the desperation and naiveté of these vulnerable people. They make reckless promises that widespread publicity will help their cases and help them personally.

The opposite usually happens: fame makes a whistleblower an even bigger target for retaliation, turns them into a public spectacle who nobody will hire, and sets them on a destructive path of addictive media-seeking and self-victimization. Before long, their career is destroyed, their peace and well-being are ruined, and they embark on quixotic campaigns for TV movies and book deals.

The catch: more publicity isn't always effective

As successful as you want to call them, how much peace and well-being do Snowden, Manning and Assange have? Snowden, still a young man at 39, is a fugitive from justice who might spend the rest of his life in Russia. Manning, 34, was charged with a capital offense, spent six years in a military prison, badly lost a campaign for the US Senate, and attempted suicide. Assange, 51, is being held in the UK’s most secure detention facility, faces 175 years in prison in the US, and is clinically depressed.

Snowden, Manning and Assange succeeded tremendously in bringing many crimes, violations and atrocities to light. But they were all failed by today’s increasingly exploitative media tactics and deteriorating cultural values that debase human dignity for the sake of titillation and profit.

So how can we judge the worth of a whistleblower? And how can we support them?

In our work, we gauge the success of a whistleblower case much differently. Actually, it is completely different. We measure success or failure by two factors, and two factors alone:

Stella is a mid-level staffer at large IT company that we’ve all heard of. (This is not her real name and we are not naming the company.) Stella called our hotline and told us in great detail about serious violations that could result in hundreds of millions of euros in fines, as well as criminal investigations. She provided substantial evidence of the violations.

We explained our professional strategy to Stella: “Blow the whistle, but don’t become a whistleblower.” She wanted to give the evidence to public authorities, contact the media and file a grievance within the company. We successfully persuaded her to do none of these things.

Instead, Stella gave the evidence to us. We will decide whether to pass it on to authorities or the media – and if so, which ones and when. She did not follow through on the grievance. Instead, we suggested that she look for a new job and ask for a transfer in the meantime. She took our advice and she is still employed, drawing a salary while applying for other positions.

As for Stella’s evidence, it will be investigated by the proper authorities. Given the gravity of the violations, it likely will be become public – and it certainly should. If we do our job well, the company will be held to account, guilty people will be punished and the violations will be fixed. But her fingerprints will be nowhere near it. When the scandal comes out, nobody will ever know it originated from a whistleblower. In this way, we go beyond what most journalists do: we don’t even mention there is a confidential insider.

Stella will have the satisfaction of knowing she made a huge difference in the world. She alone will decide who she should tell about her good deed, if anyone. She will not be blacklisted, prosecuted or harassed. She will not become a martyr or a victim. She will have her peace and her well-being. There will be no Hollywood movie, no Netflix series, no tell-all book. Just quiet justice for a quiet hero and model citizen.

Mark Worth is the Executive Director of Whistleblowing International and the European Center for Whistleblower Rights. For more information on the work, role, and importance of whistleblowers, check out their various websites. Mark regularly contributes to media outlets on subjects including whistleblowing, accountability, and transparency.