The Daily Mail and whistleblowers
by Dr Rosa Malley
The Daily Mail argues (Leveson and a gag on whistleblowers) that an exclusive it published exposing a cover-up at the NHS would not be possible if the Leveson recommendations were implemented, because the judge is opposed to whistleblowing:
What most frightens the Mail is that – post Leveson – such secrecy and bullying appears certain to become the norm in the state sector. If Lord Justice Leveson gets his way, whistleblowers will report their concerns only to their employers – and certainly NOT the media.
Scandals like the sub-human treatment of Stafford Hospital patients – which led to 1,200 deaths – will remain hidden.
Indeed, it is impossible to overstate the Leveson report’s chilling effect on journalism and the public’s right to know. Its implications for democracy, accountability and our open society could not be more grave.
A glance at the Leveson Report demonstrates that this is wrong. Lord Justice Leveson does not devote much space in his report to whistleblowing, but he does mention it in two contexts.
His first suggestion is that journalists should have access to whistleblowing hotlines so that they can report unethical or illegal practices in their own newsrooms. This recommendation is strongly supported by the National Union of Journalists as a means of protecting journalists in the workplace, and it is hard to see how any reasonable person could object to it, especially given all the evidence of unethical and illegal newsroom practices that emerged at the Leveson inquiry.
The judge’s second concern, and the one that is relevant to the Mail’s argument, is with whistleblowing that takes place between the police and the press. Bear in mind that the inquiry also heard a lot of evidence of improper relationships between police officers and press people, including at high levels.
This is what the judge said, in paragraph 97 of the report’s executive summary:
I devoted much attention to the related issues of whistleblowing and corruption. Although ultimately, going to the press is both legitimate and justifiable, the principal concern is to reduce as far as possible the need for police officers to feel it necessary to do so by encouraging greater confidence in appropriate and confidential channels both internal and external. I have recognised that there is at least a perception that the Professional Standards Departments of police forces, typically headed by an officer of the rank of Detective Chief Superintendent, may not be best placed to deal with complaints in relation to more senior officers. On account of this, and having regard to the need generally to tighten up existing structures and systems, I have made a series of recommendations, as signposts to a series of pragmatic solutions which, subject to consultation with a range of interested bodies, including ACPO, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the newly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners, would amongst other things accord an enhanced role to a designated one of the Inspectors within HM Inspectorate Constabulary (who must have served at Chief Officer level) as being the first port of call for ‘whistleblowing’ in relation to the conduct of senior officers within the police service.
What he says, therefore, is that it is ‘both legitimate and justifiable’ for whistleblowers in the police service to go to the press. The Mail has obviously overlooked this.
He also says that on the whole it would be better if that wasn’t necessary, and if the police service itself had the mechanisms to deal appropriately with problems in its own ranks. With that in mind the judge made a few suggestions – ‘signposts to a series of pragmatic solutions’ – to help the police improve their mechanisms accordingly.
Again, it is hard to see how any reasonable person could disagree with this general approach. Say there was a person at the Daily Mail who was unhappy about bullying or sexism in the workplace. I am sure the Mail would like to think it had internal mechanisms to address such problems fairly and appropriately, and that the victim of bullying or sexism would not have to resort to taking a complaint to another newspaper or to Private Eye. This is not to say that the option of whistleblowing for the Mail employee should not exist – in Leveson’s terms that would be ‘legitimate and justifiable’ – merely that it should not be the only or the first option.
So when the Mail writes that ‘if Lord Justice Leveson gets his way, whistleblowers will report their concerns only to their employers – and certainly NOT the media’ it is simply misrepresenting the judge, again.
Dr Rosa Malley is Special Projects Manager at Hacked Off.