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What a protest can tell us about whistleblowing

A carnival-style protest outside Downing Street — the home and workplace of current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson — provides some interesting insights into whistleblowing.

This week, further stories emerged about parties that had taken place in Downing Street at a time when COVID rules specifically prohibited them. Johnson told Parliament that while he had attended a party, he had thought was a ‘work meeting’. Given his track record of bending the truth, Johnson’s claims don’t seem very credible. This is why the protestors turned up outside his office/home to mock him.

That’s significant because if there’s a need for a further tightening of COVID rules, then it’s obvious that Johnson’s authority has been seriously undermined. It’s a fair bet, that a population who were broadly compliant in the past, would be far less likely to be so in future.

Since these stories are ‘old news’, it’s highly likely that the whistleblower(s) who leaked the recent stories about these events have known about them for some time.

While we can speculate about their identities and motives — & there may be nefarious reasons for leaking the stories now — the parallel universe suggested in Matthew’s tweet, is worth thinking about. By leaking them now, rather than nearer the time, they have probably helped to avert a ‘crisis of non-compliance’ & therefore potentially saved lives.

What’s interesting is that conventional logic is that we want people to whistleblow as early as possible. Yet, as research by Alison Taylor of Ethical Systems and others highlights, many whistleblowers are choosing to leak stories to the media and sites like Wikileaks, rather than go through more traditional channels. It’s not hard to see why.

Yet while this does give the whistleblower more control, as this example shows, it places additional responsibilities on them and the channels they use, to think carefully about when to go live with stories. That’s an additional level of ethical pressure that they really don’t need.

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