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Ms Jackson and the ambiguity of whistleblowing

By Miles Little - posted Thursday, 14 August 2014

I have little idea about the rightness and wrongness of the Kathy Jackson case. From media accounts, it seems that Ms Jackson blew the whistle on officials and former officials of the Health Services Union, revealing their corruption on multiple fronts. She was portrayed as a somewhat ambiguous heroine, brave in speaking out against her colleagues, but spurred by uncertain motives that perhaps included inter-personal antipathy or personal ambition. Subsequent inquiry confirmed that corruption had taken place, and that Ms Jackson's accusations contained significant substance. But then came the accounting. Ms Jackson herself was accused of corrupt practices before the ICAC, and some charges appeared to stick. Her time in the spotlight has been traumatic and harmful, both to her personally and the union that she represented. Her future seems uncertain.

This is a familiar pattern. A whistleblower makes public malpractice that abuses an institution's funds and functions, by diverting resources and privileges from public to private benefit. Whistleblowers let the public see corruption and incompetence in government departments, scientific laboratories, churches and charities, development firms, building corporations, schools, health institutions – in fact, in almost every domain of public interest. These are acts of virtue, condoned and protected by law and morality, provided always that the whistleblower has evidence on her side and genuine malfeasance to reveal.

The discourse that evolves after someone blows the whistle commonly follows a predictable pattern. The first is the phase of Scandalised Response, as the malfeasance becomes known to a wider and indignant public. Then comes a second phase of Meaningful Analysis, in which experts examine the wider implications and the actual and possible fall-out from the corrupt or criminal activities. Then follows a third phase of Official Response, where conflicts are defined and the relevant laws examined. Official Response may proceed to internal reform or may lead to external inquiry – to ICAC or even a Royal Commission.


But this is far from the end of the matter. The Official Response phase inevitably brings different interests into conflict. Within the adversarial system, this conflict assumes the formality and rigour of a ritual. Having one's day in court means formulating accusations, counter-accusations, defenses and counter-defenses. It is rare to see a peaceful ending to a public whistleblowing episode. In the Aftermath (the fourth phase), whistleblowers tend to bear the scars of their encounters for life. They may have to find new jobs, retire, change names or emigrate to other countries to avoid local opprobrium. There are well known examples of each scenario.

If whistleblowing reveals corruption or malpractice affecting public interests, it is surely a 'virtuous' act. There are laws in most western countries that protect well-motivated whistleblowers. Why, then, do they generate such hostility, and why does the public turn on them so readily at any hint of aberrance in their own backgrounds? Why are their lives tainted so profoundly?

I think it has a lot to do with the ambiguity of the moral territory within which the whistleblower operates. We might call it the 'paradox of insider information'. A whistleblower, by definition, makes insider information available to a wider audience than would normally have access. There is a spectrum of moral worth involved. 'Insider trading' in shares or privilege is considered immoral and illegal, because it confers private benefit denied to others with similar interests. Whistleblowing, by contrast, exposes malfeasance to public gaze, and – in theory, at least – protects wider public interests.

But there are other moral interests involved, fundamental ones that reflect intuitions about the integrity of groups and the trust that operates within them. To make known insider information is denigrated as 'ratting', 'snitching', 'grassing', 'treachery', 'betrayal', 'tale-telling', 'informing', 'squealing' within different groups. In-group information is 'privileged', 'private', 'in-house', 'confidential', and so on. It is precious as a currency for insiders. To make public the terms of insider discourse is to threaten the integrity of a social entity.

So whistleblowing begins in ambiguous moral territory, and even a legal verdict confirming the accusations will not clear the minds of those involved in the episode of resentment and loss of trust. No law, nor any educational program, is likely to change our deeply held intuitions. Whistleblowing is a significant social 'good', because it gives public access to private dishonesty or incompetence. It needs protection both socially and legally. But it will always have a cost. The whistleblower carries a label from that moment on. Many may admire the label, but others will wonder just how far the trading of insider information can be taken without damage to their own sense of security. There are many organisations, such as Whistleblowers Australia, that offer support to whistleblowers, helping them to handle the phase of Aftermath. They are, unfortunately, much needed. There is no magical concept that will cure humankind of its conflicting intuitions about the ambiguous status of awkward or confronting insider information.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Miles Little is Director and founder of the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney, which is a Cornerstone Member of National Forum.

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