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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 10:48 GMT
The rise of the whistle-blower
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

Katharine Gun says she leaked a secret e-mail to prevent democracy at the UN being undermined. Not every whistle-blower has such lofty concerns - but that doesn't mean their actions are any less significant.

Rise of the whistle-blower
Like countless other employees, most of whom never make the local papers, let alone become an international cause celebre, Katharine Gun is a whistle blower.

Last year the Chinese speaker was sacked from GCHQ - the agency which listens in on communications abroad - after she leaked an e-mail purportedly from US spies, which asked British officers to tap phones of UN delegates about to vote on war in Iraq.

As such eavesdropping violated international law, Ms Gun said her actions were justified. After being cleared of breaching the Official Secrets Act on Wednesday, she said that although she was "not prone to leak secrets left, right and centre", the public had a right to know what was going on.

"I felt that the British intelligence services were being asked to do something that would undermine the whole UN democratic processes."

Once pariahs, whistle-blowers are increasingly seen as a key check on public and private companies.

Katharine Gun
Her backers included Sean Penn and Rev Jesse Jackson

For every high-profile case with far-reaching consequences - be it David Kelly voicing disquiet about claims that Iraq could launch WMDs within 45 minutes, or Sherron Watkins lifting the lid on Enron's dodgy accounting practices - there are many more unsung heroes who act on their conscience.

The number of people calling a national helpline with concerns about misdeeds at work has more than doubled in the past five years. The helpline, run by the charity Public Concern at Work, offers independent advice to whistle-blowers.

Since its launch in 1993, more than 4,000 allegations of public concern have been raised.

One case involved a charity boss who extended a one-day conference in the US into a fortnight's break with his fiancée, apparently at the charity's expense. In another, a local authority housing manager got staff to requisition building materials for his own home.

"One person raised the alarm about a colleague who was a dangerously incompetent surgeon. That surgeon has now been prosecuted," says Guy Dehn, the director of Public Concern at Work.

The charity's approach is that if an issue is of sufficient concern to tell friends and family, it should be raised openly at work - or, if necessary, outside - so that it can be put right.


No longer are whistle-blowers seen as traitors or tale-tellers, not least because it is far easier - and less risky professionally - to do so.

Robert Maxwell
A whistle-blower highlighted Robert Maxwell's mismanagement
"When we started, if you asked someone to rate from one to 10 how they'd feel if they were called a whistle-blower, most would put it at three," says Mr Dehn. "It still had negative connotations. Now it's moved up the scale to about a six."

Firms increasingly have well-defined policies on dealing with complaints, and the rights of the whistle-blower are enshrined in law. In 1998, the UK enacted the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which gives some protection to employees who raise serious concerns within the workplace and suffer from so doing (although Ms Gun is among the tiny minority not covered, working as she did for the intelligence service).

One of the charity's trustees, Gary Brown, blew the whistle when his boss at Abbey National awarded a contract to an ideas agency run by a friend of a friend, and then approved hefty fees for the below-standard work done.

Although the atmosphere soured as the case edged towards the courts - so much so that he eventually quit his job - Mr Brown says he has no regrets. "It wasn't negative; it was morally uplifting."

Eyes opened

But being a whistle-blower need not involve exposing malpractice or a cover-up, or indeed being victimised for doing so. It may involve something as simple as pointing out a dangling computer cable which could trip up a partially-sighted staff member.

Enron's HQ
Enron staff were given note pads with inspiring quotes, such as this by Martin Luther King Jr:
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter'"
"You may go home and think nothing more about it, but you are a whistle blower," Mr Dehn says. "If you hadn't said anything, that person may trip and end up in a wheelchair.

"Your employer would have to pay compensation, and bring in new rules and new computers. And the guy sitting at the desk with the trailing cable would feel distraught."

So Katharine Gun's advice to others in the intelligence services to act on their consciences could equally apply to any employee. "I know it's very difficult and people don't want to jeopardise their careers or lives, but if there are things out there that should really come out, hey, why not?" she said.

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