I’m delighted to see Tony Wright’s Public Accounts Committee recognising what many of us knew all along: a "culture that encourages proper whistleblowing… is the best safeguard against leaking". The BBC has an outline of the findings here.
The challenge is shifting that culture. Unfortunately, Britain still has an instinct for secrecy. The introduction of whistleblower legislation and the Freedom of Information Act have made surprisingly little difference to this deeply ingrained taste for keeping the public in the dark. I sincerely hope that the PAC’s proposal that civil servants are given a route of disclosure through parliament will make a difference. But I have my doubts.
The two major cases in which I have been directly implicated as a journalist (Katharine Gun and Derek Pasquill) raised deeply important public interest issues. Both individuals appeared before Tony Wright’s committee. In each case, it is difficult to see how they could have raised their concerns through the usual whistleblowing procedures. Gun, a translator at GCHQ, had received a memo from the US National Security Agency requesting British help in spying on the United Nations Security Council in the run-up to the war in Iraq. As her entire organisation was implicated in this decision, to whom would she have communicated her concerns. Her point was that everyone in GCHQ should have been shocked by the NSA proposal to spy on the UN. Everyone should have blown the whistle, but only she did. Her very reaction to the memo was an implicit indictment of her colleagues’ failure to act.
In Derek Pasquill’s case, again his concerns were with the very culture of the organisation employiong him., in this case the Foriegn Office. He was shocked that his colleagues were pursuing a policy of appeasement of radical Islam. The documents he leaked demonstarted that the UK government planned to open up back channels to the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and revealed a preparedness to allow extremist Islamist idelogues into Britain to avoid potential social unrest if they were banned. Again, it is difficult to see how Pasquill could have been expected to go through the usual whistleblowing procedures when he was questioning a policy that came from the top.
In some cases, whistleblowers simply have to leak.
(As a result of his actions Derek Pasquill lost his job, a decision which he is presently appealing. This is a costly process. The organisations which benefitted from his disclosures, The Observer, The New Statesman and the think-tank Policy Exchange have so far failed to contribute to his fighting fund, but as I am sure they will do the right thing. Anyone else wishing to help Derek get back to work at the Foreign Office please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org).