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Blow the Whistle and be Damned?

Reading David Edmonds’ post here and the ensuing discussion about why journalists might be under an imperative to bring important information to light has got me wondering about the other actors involved in exposing cases of wrongdoing. Before a journalist gets on the case, you generally need to have a whistleblower. But when should a whistleblower blow the whistle?

It may have been military intelligence analyst Private Bradley Manning who leaked the huge amount of classified intelligence on the Afghan war to WikiLeaks in the case David discussed. If convicted, Manning likely faces decades in prison. He allegedly reported that the information that he had access to contained: “incredible things, awful things … that belonged in the public domain.”

In another story in the news, the supermodel Naomi Campbell has been testifying in the case of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president and warlord who is currently on trial for war crimes in the Hague. Prosecutors say Charles Taylor had allied himself with Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who have an extensive reputation for war crimes including hacking off the limbs and hands of civilians. Naomi Campbell is not a whistleblower herself; she refused to testify at all until she was involuntarily subpoenaed by the prosecution, citing danger to her family given what she has read about Mr Taylor’s crimes on the internet. Her connection to the case is that she was a guest along with Charles Taylor at a  star-studded dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in 1997, and she may have received blood diamonds on that occasion as a gift from an apparently enamoured Mr Taylor. If she did, it would indicate that Mr Taylor is not being truthful when he denies that he was never in possession of blood diamonds that, it is claimed, he used to purchase weapons in South Africa around that time. The whistleblower in this case is the actress Mia Farrow, another guest at the dinner who, recognizing the evidential significance of the alleged event, first contacted the Hague court and submitted written testimony that Ms Campbell had received blood diamonds from Mr Taylor there. Farrow could have kept quiet out of deference to the host of the dinner party, or to the private lives of the other guests, but did not. “Step up and do your part! … I am eager for the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone to see justice,” she told ABC News.

These are two real life cases of whistleblowers, and there are three interesting things that strike me about them both: 1) Neither of the alleged whistleblowers had a role responsibility to blow the whistle, akin to a journalist’s role responsibility to report information – indeed insofar as these actors had role responsibilities, they seem to have pointed in the opposite direction. 2) The long-term consequences of blowing the whistle in both cases were and still are *wildly* unpredictable. Will the Afghan intelligence leak lead to a helpful public backlash against an unjust war? Will it lead to a tightening of intelligence procedures that prevent the next even more urgent leak? Will it endanger the lives of informants or agents? Who knows?! Will the intervention of Mia Farrow assist in convicting Charles Taylor? Will Charles Taylor’s conviction dissuade some future potential war criminal from doing what he is alleged to have done? Who knows?! 3) Each of the alleged whistle-blowers here seems to have acted out of the sense that they were “doing what they had to do”, morally speaking. They acted out of a sense of duty, misguided or not. But it seems unlikely that either of them could have said that what they were doing would certainly, or even most likely, have the best consequences. If they acted on any moral rule, they acted on something more like: “Don’t let the bad guys get away with it!”

Is “Don’t let the bad guys get away with it!” a good rule for knowing when to blow the whistle? It seems doubtful to me. For one thing, it seems far too demanding: You can come to all kinds of harm to yourself by reporting the wrongs that you are in a privileged position to hear about. For another, this rule would conflict with all kinds of important role responsibilities: priests, lawyers, ambassadors, intelligence analysts, and polite dinner guests, for example, must be able to learn about wrongs without automatically publicising them.

These typical whistle-blowing cases therefore look like cases where it’s perfectly possible to know when to blow the whistle – and where a virtuous person would generally have a good sense of when to do so – but where there are no rules at all that can tell you what to do.

Dear Readers: Is there a rule for whistle-blowers?

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    I’m sure you’re right that there are no rules in these cases, but I’d suggest that there are guidelines that, as this word suggest, guide ethical conduct. “Don’t let the bad guys get away with it” is one of them, but by no means the only one.
    Others could be :
    Do I have access to information that could swing the balance in a case ?
    Am I in a unique position to whistle-blow (by having this information that no-one else has, or that no-one else has the means, or courage, or opportunity to reveal) in which case, if I don’t come forward then justice will not be done ?
    Could keeping quiet lead (certainly/probably/perhaps) to a situation that conflicts with some of my principles (to oppose an unjust war supported by propaganda, a wrongful acquital/conviction..)
    One should not blow the whistle if one is convinced that it will do more harm than good.

    I’m sure there are others, and many of them will conflict, or at least be hard to choose from in any particular circumstance.

    My point is that in the real world, it is very hard ever to find « rules » that one could follow, but fortunately this doesn’t imply that we do as we like or that we have to rely on intuition or conscience rather than reason.

  2. Dennis J. Tuchler

    There is a good case for giving wide latitude to the person deciding whether to blow the whistle on a person abusing a public or corporate office.

    The more likely a person will “blow the whistle” on someone abusing his/her office, the more the deterrent effect on others who might abuse their office. I’m not for punishment since I reject free will, but I am for deterrence(accepting that the whistle blower’s victim is being treated as merely a means to the public end of honest and faithful execution of office).

  3. Individuals ought to blow the whistle. We all have some moral obligations to everyone living on this planet, and if making a majority of people’s lives better why not take the risk of whistle blowing?? God is just going to reward you in the afterlife right?? Anyway I think the utilitarian would condole this whistle blowing behavior, as even though it might not maximize our happiness, it certainly maximizes the utility of those who are the majority compared to us individuals who are blowing the whistle. So take the risk people, and always blow the whistle, regardless of the leads to the greater good..and promotes future whistle’s sort of like a rape victim who’s afraid of going public, they need to know that others have come forward as well..otherwise the bad guys will always get away!

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