Last Friday two well-known bloggers, Kady O'Malley and David Eaves, discussed whistleblowing with CBC TV's Power and Politics host Evan Solomon (view the program here). When they turned to the subject of Richard Colvin, the consensus was that he is not a whistleblower – because he played by the rules, reported only internally, and never sought publicity or approached the media. We at FAIR respectfully disagree.
The following is my response on behalf of FAIR, but this also represents the view of the international community of public interest organizations who advocate for whistleblowers – we all share a similar view on this issue.
What is a whistleblower?
The popular perception is that a person can only be called a whistleblower if they report their concerns externally, typically to the media. This is what I refer to as the 'crusader' or 'loose canon' model: someone taking up a cause and immediately making it as public as possible. However those who work in this field define the term whistleblower differently, to include any employee who speaks up about wrongdoing that threatens the public interest -- whether internally or externally, privately or publicly.
We do this for several reasons, based on our observation of what actually happens when honest employees encounter wrongdoing in the workplace:
1) Very few people who report wrongdoing are pursuing any kind of cause or trying to pick a fight. The vast majority are simply employees who find themselves pushed into a corner: in the course of doing their job honestly and diligently, they are forced to choose between obeying their bosses or holding fast to their personal and professional ethics.
2) Very few people who encounter wrongdoing in the workplace go to the media at any stage. Nearly all report their concerns up the line of command within their organization, giving management at all levels every opportunity to recognize the problem and put it right.
They do this for many reasons, including: a) the same basic honesty that causes them to raise the concern in the first place; b) out of respect for their legal and professional obligations; c) and because they believe that there are other honest people within senior management who would acknowledge the potential for harm and quickly fix the problem. They try their utmost to get the problem fixed -- quietly and without publicity, working within the rules and official channels.
3) Nearly all these individuals suffer vicious and calculated reprisals. The reprisals are designed to silence, discredit, isolate and crush them -- professionally, financially and emotionally.
Since I started working with FAIR I've been astonished at the consistency of these reprisals: almost as if there were a step-by-step procedure written down that every organization follows. Everything else varies from case to case: a) the industry or government department involved; b) the severity of the issue; c) the level of the employee; d) the type of work -- but the reprisals seem to follow a play book. And reprisals occur just as predictably in organizations that seem respectable and well-managed.
This phenomenon is like an organizational 'immune system' which, having identified a 'threat', kicks in automatically to destroy the target. It's perhaps not even necessary for anyone to give an explicit order for the reprisals to start -- although in most cases it's clear that certain individuals (those accused of wrongdoing) have orchestrated the process.
4) Very few cases (I'd guess fewer than one in a hundred) ever get any kind of media attention whatsoever. This is because most whistleblowers are simply crushed and silenced in short order.
Every week FAIR receives emails and phone calls from people who are in the process of having their lives ruined in this way, but in Canada there's virtually nothing to protect them. If you doubt this statement, just do some research: it's a disgrace to our nation and a betrayal of our Canadian values.
How cases get into the media
Some whistleblowers, having exhausted every other possibility and seeing their careers in tatters, feel forced to switch to 'plan B' and go external. But only a few of the most resourceful individuals are successful in getting the problem recognized externally e.g. by auditors, a regulator, a parliamentary committee or the media.
The few cases that end up in the media usually get there because of management's intransigence and refusal to address a problem, even one that is so big that it cannot be hidden indefinitely. Often it is outrageous management actions taken as part of the cover-up that finally attract the attention of outsiders and lead to exposure of a scandal.
If you study past scandals that have come to light due to the actions of a whistleblower, you'll observe that it often took many years of intense struggle to finally get the problem exposed. Very few individuals have the expertise, stamina, financial resources or sheer guts to fight a government department or a corporation for perhaps a decade, with no assurance of success.
The bottom line
The stereotype of the whistleblower as a malcontent or loose canon, rushing off to the media with unreliable information, is a myth that helps protect wrongdoers. This myth persists because of the the 'smear' campaigns invariably launched to discredit and attack the motives of the whistleblower as a psychologically unsound attention seeker – these attacks are part of the play book.
Perhaps there's a need for other terms to help capture the essence of what's really going on and to help dispel the damaging stereotype: for example I find the term 'truth-teller' a good synonym for 'whistleblower'.
The bottom line is that nearly all whistleblowers are just ordinary employees trying to do their job with integrity in the face of serious obstacles, and striving to get a problem fixed without unnecessary fuss or publicity. Richard Colvin exactly fits this description. No wonder he doesn't want to be called a whistleblower, given the pejorative connotations, but he is absolutely typical of the honest and courageous employees that we hear from from all the time.
Thank goodness that there are so many principled people like him whose actions protect the public interest. And shame on those politicians and bureaucrats who not only take part in vicious character assassinations but systematically block legislation that would provide some protection for such truth-telling heroes.
Executive Director, FAIR