In an age where information is tightly controlled by image-makers, spin doctors and gatekeepers, real scandal can often only be revealed with the help of whistleblowers.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the whistleblowing charity Protect (formerly known as Public Concern at Work) – we focus on 12 people who have taken great personal risk to expose everything from warmongers to tax dodgers and sexual and physical abuse.
“I could have been fined a million euros,” the Luxleaks whistleblower Antoine Deltour says when reflecting on his ordeal. Since passing information about controversial tax agreements to the French journalist Edouard Perrin, the former PricewaterhouseCoopers employee has faced global media attention and two trials. By 2016, more than 215,000 people had signed a petition pledging support for Deltour.
It was in 2011 that Deltour first passed documents to Perrin, detailing how companies such as Amazon and Dyson struck (perfectly legal) deals with Luxembourg to avoid cross-border tax. The International Consortium of Journalists used this leaked data to unveil the extent of the tax avoidance in 2014. Many of the multinational companies involved had managed to reduce their tax to near zero by developing complex strategies with the Grand Duchy.
The data leak was denounced by Pierre Gramegna, Luxembourg’s finance minister, as “the worst attack” ever experienced by his country. Indeed, Deltour grimly acknowledges the immense courage needed on his part. In 2016, he was convicted of theft, receiving a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of €1,500. Even so, he still insists he would whistleblow again.
“Democracy demands information,” Deltour says. “I still believe I acted in the public interest.”
In early 2018, Deltour was finally acknowledged as a whistleblower, and his conviction was quashed. But in what Deltour describes as a “smart move”, a €1,000 fine against Raphael Halet, who also passed Luxleaks information on, was upheld. “There’s a message there,” Deltour notes. “By recognising me, they’re making out that they’re open. But by condemning Raphael, they’re making sure people think twice before speaking to a journalist.”
Katharine Gun was 28 when she tried to prevent one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century.
Whilst working as a mandarin translator at GCHQ, Gun and her colleagues received a request from America’s National Security Agency. The email requested an intelligence “surge’ of diplomats attached to the UN security council, to secure crucial information on the voting intentions of member states in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Gun, horrified at these “dirty-tricks”, leaked the email to the Observer, and was subsequently sacked and arrested, an ordeal which she describes as “isolating”. “I felt very much alone,” she says. “I didn’t know whether I would be charged.”
Although her leak did not deter the war, it did cause worldwide outrage, and a second UN resolution to authorise the war never occurred. Gun’s trial collapsed due to insufficient evidence, and her whistleblowing is now being immortalised in upcoming film Official Secrets. Would she blow the whistle again? “Yeah, I would,” she says. “There is always a need for whistleblowers – we don’t live in a society which is transparent, fair and just. Whistleblowers hold people to account.”
As a nurse with decades of experience, Terry Bryan was appalled by the abuse he witnessed at Winterbourne View, a hospital for people with learning difficulties. After his concerns were ignored by management, he raised his claims with the Care Quality Commission. In what the CQC described as an “unforgivable error of judgement”, no action was taken.
Bryan then turned to BBC Panorama, whose show Undercover Care: The Abuse Exposed cast Winterbourne’s conditions into the limelight. Bryan’s whistleblowing led to six care workers being given prison sentences, and NHS England developing its 2011 “transforming care” agenda. The agenda aimed to reduce patient admissions to hospitals like Winterbourne.
Bryan now works for Care Inspectorate Wales, using his experience to inspect care homes and nursing homes around South Wales. When asked if he would be prepared to blow the whistle again, it was an unequivocal yes. “It’s about following your conscience,” he says. “How would you live with yourself if you didn’t do it?”
Awarded whistleblower of the year by Middlesex University in 2014, Osita Mba’s actions have been highly commended. In March 2011, the former HMRC solicitor contacted the National Audit Office, revealing a “sweetheart deal” between HMRC and the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. Mba alleged that HMRC’s most senior tax official had let Goldman Sachs off paying at least £20m in interest. “I considered it my duty as a public servant to report it,” Mba reflects. After feeling unsatisfied with the NAO’s report in the matter, Mba then took the claims to the public accounts committee of the House of Commons. “Fortunately, my claims were taken seriously and investigated,” he says.
In an action widely condemned by MPs, HMRC then used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to search through the phone records and emails of both Mba and his wife. “I expected them to do it, so I wasn’t surprised when I found out that they had,” says Mba, who was also suspended from his job. Despite his ordeal, he is able to see the positives: “I have paid dearly in terms of my career so far, but the peace of mind I have enjoyed is priceless.”
In 2013, Mba received the equivalent of three years’ salary and pension contribution in a compromise agreement. Looking back, he describes whistleblowing as a “battle of conscience”. “Only the truth will set you free,” he says. “If I find myself in a situation where my conscience tells me that speaking out is the right thing to do, I will do it.”
Claire Gilham was a district judge at Warrington county court when she first raised her complaints. Working in family courts, she witnessed hostage-taking and violence, and was even alerted by the police that someone was threatening to kill her. Initially, she was encouraged to speak out, but gradually support for her waned. Isolated and excluded, she recalls telling her human resources team: “I can’t stand this, I’m going to break down.”
Gilham’s case remains unique among the other whistleblowers. Judges are not classed as workers, and so aren’t entitled to the legal protections usually given to whistleblowers. “I think it’s dangerous to exclude people from statutory protection,” Gilham says, when asked about her determination to take her case to the supreme court. It was previously dismissed by an employment tribunal and the appeals court, which upheld the ruling that judges are not workers.
Working with Protect (formerly Public Concern at Work) throughout her case, Gilham remembers their ability to reflect critically on her case. “It was reassuring to find that whistleblowers aren’t crazy, resentful people,” Gilham adds. Rather, they are simply people unwilling to assist in the concealment of mistakes.
“If judges, the most privileged people in the country, can’t speak out, then who can?” says Gilham, who feels a sense of responsibility for those less able to speak out. She is adamant that she would be prepared to blow the whistle again. “You have to reflect on what you’re doing and walk forward. You have to be ethical.”
In a 2016 speech in the Lords discussing his whistleblowing experience, the Conservative peer Kevin Shinkwin described it as the saddest moment of his career. Does he still view it this way? “Yes, it still is the saddest moment,” he says. “It completely shattered my trust.”
The incident in question happened in 2010, before Shinkwin entered the Lords and when he was working as the head of public affairs at the Royal British Legion. He was asked to sign an invoice of almost £10,000 for work done by an MP’s researcher, who was using his privileged access as a passholder to moonlight as a public affairs consultant. Shinkwin and his then boss both refused to sign it and recommended it should not be paid. They were over-ruled by the then Director General who only informed them he had personally approved payment retrospectively.“The issue of trust was paramount,” he says. “People give money to charities in the good faith that it will be spent properly.”
Although Shinkwin notes that there is no evidence the money was ever paid, he emphasises that the way he was treated for raising concerns is what matters. He was bullied by a senior director, who demanded that he approve the invoice. The then director general even led Shinkwin to believe a payment had been made. He says he was eventually eased out of his role at the Legion. “I knew that by speaking up, I was sacrificing my career,” he says.
Now, he is adamant that more protection for whistleblowers is needed, especially in the charity sector. “When charities suffer [as a result of whistleblowing], it is the people who depend on them who suffer more,” he says, before insisting he would be prepared to blow the whistle again. “My conscience wouldn’t let me not. I would not be able to sleep.”
Shinkwin is keen to emphasise that the Royal British Legion is a different place today. “I don’t believe what happened to me would happen at the Legion now,” he says, noting that the Legion has a completely new senior management team.
The past few months have been rough for Shahmir Sanni. Since March, he’s been alienated by those he trusted, fired from his job at the TaxPayers’ Alliance and outed as gay by Downing Street. All this stems from an interview published in the Observer – an interview in which Sanni alleged that the leave campaign broken campaign rules to win the Brexit vote..
“I was traumatised,” says Sanni of the moment that a rival revealed his sexuality. “I thought, you know what, screw these guys. I realised I had a moral duty to bring light on each and every individual. It was about justice for the British electorate, but also justice for LGBTQ+ people and people of colour, bigger than Brexit.”
Sanni’s interview revealed that Vote Leave were close to exceeding their £7m spending budget. They received a donation of £1m a couple of weeks before the referendum that would have tipped them over. They decided to “donate” £625,000 to BeLeave, a youth group founded by Darren Grimes. Initially ecstatic, Sanni quickly realised they would never see any of the money. Instead, it was ploughed back into Vote Leave’s campaign.
“What’s the point of democracy if you’re going to cheat?” asks Sanni, who still remains a committed Eurosceptic. “Justice comes when people are being investigated and fined.”
When asked if he would blow the whistle again, Sanni is unsure. “Short answer: yes. But I do often say probably not.” Sanni advises those who have had any minor or major mental illness, particularly people of colour, to think twice before whistleblowing.
“When you whistleblow as a minority, there are massive implications,” says Sanni, who recalls both Brexiters and remainers doubting his integrity. Despite this, he remains upbeat. When asked for a final statement, he jokes: “Follow me on Instagram.”
Quickly becoming serious again, he is keen to emphasise the gravity of the situation. “It was a huge electoral scandal. It’s about more than Brexit now. It’s about ensuring that our democracy is retained.”
When the media mogul Robert Maxwell died in 1991, he was mourned as the Daily Mirror’s “saviour”. Yet, in the wake of his death, a vast pension fraud was revealed. In all, some £400m was found to have been taken from the Mirror’s pension fund, leaving employees facing a bleak future. For Harry Templeton, who initially blew the whistle on this in 1988, the revelations came “too late”.
Templeton, a printer for the Mirror Group newspapers, sat on the board of trustees for the Mirror’s pension scheme. A union-approved trustee, he challenged Maxwell about the way he planned to use the pension funds. In a vote about the scheme, Templeton found himself outnumbered 13-1. The seven management-approved trustees on the board wouldn’t dare vote against Maxwell, Templeton recalls. The six other union-approved trustees were simply “very naive”.
“I had to bring my problems home to my family,” says Templeton, remembering his experience as demoralising. “It was like banging your head against a brick wall.”
Shortly after, he was fired from the company under the pretext of threatening another worker. “You have to remember, companies don’t sack someone for blowing the whistle,” Templeton says. “They find other reasons to, and they offer people incentives to keep their mouths shut.”
Templeton recognises the challenges that whistleblowers and their supporters face. “You have to try to do something about it, but the other side doesn’t stick to the rules, they find every method they can.”
Howard Shaw, a former detective sergeant at the Metropolitan Police, describes his experience as a whistleblower as a “lonely two years”. Now chief compliance officer at Joules Africa, Shaw blew the whistle after alleging that a former colleague cheated in a job interview that led to his promotion.
Shaw raised concerns with his superiors that the colleague had seen interview questions in advance. His claims were ignored and the individual was then appointed as his line manager. Shaw was subsequently removed from his unit.
“I was under the care of my doctor and on medication, I had counselling,” Shaw remembers. Unprepared to leave the unit quietly, Shaw brought the case to an employment tribunal, which awarded him £37,000 damages and £1,000 costs after finding that he did have legal protection as a whistleblower.
Despite his success, Shaw says regrettably that he would not blow the whistle again, but instead calls for reform of whistleblowing laws. “The law needs to be more user-friendly, more accessible and less judicial.”
Chris Day was a junior doctor on the way to becoming a consultant when his career progress was cut short. While working on a south London hospital’s intensive care unit, Day became increasingly concerned regarding staffing levels. “One of my principal disclosures was made in real time at the beginning of the night shift,” he remembers. “I had no choice – the consequences of not making the disclosure might have been even more scary.”
Yet Day’s allegations had lifechanging consequences for him. His whistleblowing cost him his consultancy career and he has been working as a locum doctor in A&E departments, while he fights his case.
Instead of acting on his safety concerns, Health Education England attempted to argue they were not his employer.
“I don’t know why there is such resistance to culture change and meaningful legal protection for whistleblowers,” says Day, whose case has since succeeded, granting 54,000 junior doctors whistleblowing protection. “Maybe they think the public cannot cope with the truth about what is happening in the NHS.”
Day remains a vocal supporter of the NHS, and he has since mounted campaigns to keep it public. Reflecting on his experience, he says: “I would only whistleblow again if a person’s life was in immediate danger. Politicians want healthcare staff to keep quiet and get on with the job.”
From humble beginnings in Liverpool, Michael Woodford quickly rose through the ranks at digital camera company Olympus, before becoming the company’s first non-Japanese president in 2011. Just weeks later he became suspicious of several acquisitions the company had made in what turned out to be a £1bn fraud scandal. “I could look away, but if I did that I would become part of it. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, there’s no going back.”
However, the meeting Woodford called to address the claims quickly backfired. The board turned on him and he was fired. But when the fraud was linked to the Japanese mafia, Woodford realised his problems were only just beginning.
“I thought I was going to be assassinated,” recalls Woodford, who was forced by the company to give up his apartment and return to the UK. “At times I felt I was in Alice in Wonderland and I questioned my sanity. I was completely isolated.”
Fearing for the lives of both himself and his family, Woodford decided to seek safety through publicity. His actions led to two senior Olympus board members being sentenced to three years in prison. In 2012, Woodford won a £10m out-of-court settlement after suing Olympus.
Now a patron of the whistleblowing charity Protect, Woodford recommends that whistleblowers act with caution. “If you are going to take on a large company, make sure you seek advice, talk to people you trust and seek legal advice,” he says. He admits that whistleblowing isn’t easy, but is adamant he would be prepared to do it again.
Maggie Oliver remembers her experience as a whistleblower as one defined by stress, sleepless nights and fear. “They were the worst two years of my life,” says the former detective constable. “I truly believed I may be prosecuted for simply telling the truth and trying to expose the neglect of the authorities.”
While working with Greater Manchester police (GMP), Oliver had been central to uncovering a Rochdale paedophile ring. By interacting with the group’s victims nearly every day for six months, Oliver gradually gained the trust of the vulnerable girls. The girls eventually agreed to come forward, which led to nine members of the gang being sentenced in 2012.
For Oliver, though, the actions of the police were not sufficient to safeguard the victims. One of the girls, who had been abused since the age of 14, was named in court as someone who had helped the groomers. Disgusted, Oliver took her complaints to various departments of GMP, and even the Home Office, before resigning in 2012.
“All public organisations like the police … are interested in is protecting the organisation [rather] than listening to what a troublesome member of staff says, even if they are telling the truth,” Oliver says, who still feels protective of the girls she helped free from abuse.
“I have no regrets about the action I took,” she claims. “I feel proud to know I was strong enough to stand up for what I believed in, and fight to give these kids a voice.”
Louise O’Neill at Protect helped secure these interviews. An exhibition of these and other cases will run at Guardian Gallery, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N19GU from Monday 15 to Friday 26 October. Open each day from 10.00 to 18.00, admission free.
Produced by Joanna Ruck and Matt Fidler
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