In Defense of the Flawed Whistleblower

Whistleblowers are not always saints, but they don’t need to be.

Long before transparency became the byword it is today, whistleblowers were the ones holding public entities accountable. Armed with insider access and a hyperactive moral compass, these individuals routinely exposed corruption, fraud and other forms of unethical behavior within organizations.

There are famous and, in some cases, infamous whistleblowers, And then there are lesser known ones who do their whistleblowing away from the media spotlight. For every Edward Snowden granting interviews from Russia, there is probably an accountant who quietly and unceremoniously lifts the cover on his employer’s book-keeping violations.

The celebrity variety is known to tackle outsized issues such as the Orwellian spying tactics of governments. In 2013, Edward Snowden’s leaks kickstarted a public debate about mass surveillance and the individual right to privacy. The former CIA employee has claimed a larger purpose aimed at furthering public interest in his actions. Despite that, his manner of exposing the overreach of American intelligence networks has been controversial. He is wanted in the US for leaking top secret documents and violating World War I era laws against espionage. Public opinion is divided on whether he is a hero or a traitor although there is greater support for him outside the country and among millenials.

It was with a view to protecting leakers like Snowden and their right to leak that whistleblowing site, Wikileaks, was launched in 2006. Its founder, Julian Assange, is nothing if not controversial. Even his supporters view him as a flawed hero with the shadow of sexual assault charges still hanging over him. To his critics, Assange is an egomaniac who is not held back by scruples of any kind. Still, this self-styled ‘information archivist’ is not one to be deterred in his mission. Given his approach to information dissemination, Assange is largely at odds with traditional news reporting. He has accused journalists of not doing enough to protect their sources and of being sloppy with their homework, among other failings.

For the most part, however, whistleblowers and journalists have been partners in a joint quest to bring the truth to light, the former providing the facts; the latter the storytelling.

One of the biggest scoops in US political history was delivered by two journalists based on information supplied to them by a source cryptically codenamed ‘Deep Throat’. It was only much later that that Deep Throat was identified as Mark Felt, an FBI long-timer who devised an elaborate system to talk to the Washington Post journalists without being detected. The story that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein subsequently published in 1972 about the events at Watergate and the degree to which the Nixon administration was eavesdropping on political adversaries, brought down that presidency.

For Felt, it was a dangerous gambit given his position within the FBI and the political environment at the time. Ever since his involvement became public knowledge, many have speculated on why he did it. In more recent years, Woodward himself has concluded that Felt’s motivation was not entirely patriotic. Instead, he was probably driven to talk by a personal vendetta against the Nixon administration after it had bypassed him for the role of FBI Director.

All of this may be why whistleblowers make such complex case studies. On the surface, their actions appear heroic but their motives are not always easy to decipher. Particularly now, at a time when dirty linen can be washed and aired completely on social media, organizations have to be mindful of the damage that an angry and vengeful employee can do. Increasingly, it is also hard to separate real whistleblowers from trolls taking aim under the cover of anonymity. The irony here is that anonymity has largely been recognized as necessary for whistleblowing to flourish without fear of retaliation. Now, it may also be a shield for those who just want to fire unwarranted salvos at organizations with which they are miffed.

But when one considers how many reforms across industries whistleblowing has enabled over the decades, this seems like a minor consideration. Dedicated whistleblowers press ahead despite public backlash and accusations of disloyalty to company or country. Globally, they have exposed malpractice in healthcare, challenged the polluting ways of energy companies and held Big Tobacco responsible for concealing important research on the effects of smoking.

In India, questioning crusaders have tried to expose adulteration and extortion as well as the general sleaze and corruption that taint our lives and environment.

The cost of pursuing the cause can be harassment, persecution and even death. The tragic cases of outspoken individuals like Satyendra Dubey and Manjunath Shanmugham remind us that whistleblowing is often fatal in India. The starkness of this reality moved the Indian parliament to strengthen protection for whistleblowers in 2014 but several provisions of the new law are still being ironed out. Even when it does pass, there is likely to be a gap between legislation and enforcement.

Clearly, what we should be examining more closely is not the motivation of whistleblowers but the degree to which they are protected from their targets. The world is not served by a detailed character sketch of a whistleblower. But it is made poorer by the untimely death of one.

Sangita Srinivasa is a Bangalore-based writer and the editor of Viewpoint.