The Blog

Punishing Dissent: Whistle-blowing Is Inconvenient But Must Be Protected

Whistle-blowing is perhaps the greatest safeguard to the rule of law, it is a fundamental part of how democracy works.

It was 15:57, 2 May, 1982 when the British submarine, the HMS Conqueror, fired three 21 inch Mk 8 torpedoes at its target, the Argentinian warship ARA General Belgrano. 323 were killed in the attack, it was the single most deadly incident during the entire Falklands conflict. Rumours were abound that the sinking of the ship was illegal; that the Belgrano was in fact heading back to port and outside of the 200 mile exclusion zone. It was one man, a Ministry of Defence civil servant named Clive Ponting, who exposed that these rumours were true. He disclosed a series of documents to the Labour politician, Tam Dalyell MP, who brought it to the public's attention. Ponting was soon arrested and imprisoned. Contrary to the judge's gentle advice, he was acquitted by a jury of his peers.

Society has traditionally welcomed the exposure of secrets when it has been deemed in the public interest. The world celebrated the brave who exposed the Watergate scandal in 1972, as well those who brought to light the illegal bugging of UN offices in 2003. Many countries continue to have the public interest defense embedded in their espionage statutes. So why are whistle-blowers under increased scrutiny, greater levels of public opposition and pressure to flee from the governments they disavowed and the public they sought to protect?

The most famous examples are American. Chelsea Manning, who is currently incarcerated serving a 35 year sentence and kept in solitary confinement, and Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong before receiving asylum in Russia. Both of these individuals released information on activities carried out by the US Government. It would be a mistake to conclude that these two cases only impact the US and that those of us who reside elsewhere need not take notice. In today's interconnected world, we must all care. Manning's disclosure highlighted the brutalities of a war which helped breathe new life into the Islamic fundamentalist cause, headlines are now adorned with the brutalities committed by Daesh (ISIS).Snowden revealed that Governments all around the world, not just in the US, were illegally spying on their whole populations. It was the UK, not the US, who he lambasted as having the most invasive surveillance system of all. Today's whistle-blowers often transcend borders, they not only reveal domestic corruption or illegality, they often expose global problems.

The ability for whistle-blowers to garner a worldwide audiences in minutes may go some way to explaining why they are being branded as "enemies of the state", "enemy combatants" or even "information terrorists". Managing the fall-out of a leak has perhaps never been so difficult. There's an old saying, a lie can travel half way around the globe while the truth is still putting its shoes on. This has never been so true. In 2015, a UK Naval Officer, William McNeilly, published his 9 page report damning the safety and security protocols of the UK's nuclear submarine arsenal, Trident. It was snatched by Scottish nationalists as a stick to beat Westminster politicians with. They claimed it as proof that the nuclear submarines were harmful to Scotland's interests. The truth was, as McNeilly inadvertently admitted himself, most of his conclusions were, at best, anecdotal - somebody told somebody or he once saw. Thanks to the Internet, Governments now have to be on high-alert for dissenters amongst their ranks. Even the slightest leak, whether well-founded or not, has the potential cause colossal problems in today's social media driven age.

While I understand the concern, I fear the consequences. Whistle-blowing is perhaps the greatest safeguard to the rule of law, it is a fundamental part of how democracy works. When the ability to legitimately exercise force is transferred from the many to the few, there must be a tacit agreement that when wrong-doings are committed or feared of being committed, people can speak up. Without this assurance, authority can use its position to silence opposition and prevent anybody knowing what it is doing, whether its actions are right or wrong. We need to decide the kind of world we want to live in and the only way we can do that is if we know what's going on. Whistle-blowing is pivotal to that.