Television Review

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The Independent Culture
Whistle-blowers arraign virtually all of us when they raise the alarm - if not directly, then implicitly, by showing with undeniable clarity how to obey a conscience. For anyone who walks the other way when presented with a moral hurdle, whether out of embarrassment or timidity or self-interest, there is an unspoken accusation in their action: "What would you have done?". Which is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to make unequivocal heroes of them. Whether we admit it or not, we have too many reasons to rationalise our way out of the example they set.

The problem was apparent in Cutting Edge's film (C4) about four ordinary whistle-blowers, which was alive with odd equivocations. These were particularly acute in the case of Joy Cawthorne who complained about safety standards at the Lyme Regis Activities Centre in 1992. When her concerns were ignored, she resigned. Nine months later her apparently lurid prophecy that parents might have to be told of the deaths of their children came true, when a canoeing trip went wrong and four teenagers lost their lives. The letter she wrote was instrumental both in the jailing of the company's managing director and in changing the law. But, though she was clearly a person of unusual rectitude and responsibility, you couldn't help feeling that this was a muted blow on the whistle, one that didn't carry beyond the office of her indifferent superior until it was too late.

Similarly, the story of Terry Smith, a lorry driver who had reported on the dangerous work practices of his employer, would have had a sharper focus if his revelation hadn't waited until after a diagnosis of terminal cancer, at which point it became clear that he had nothing to lose by candour. Was this a man with a higher sense of duty than most people or just one with a far better reason to be reckless? The other two cases were less uneasy - that of an insurance salesman who tried to prevent his company using inexperienced salesmen to sell pensions and a North Sea electrician, victimised and made redundant after pointing out safety failures offshore. Betrayed by colleagues whose safety he was helping to ensure, he killed himself when it became clear that he would never work in the industry again,

All the cases in Cutting Edge were moving and admirable - a clear demonstration that a world of compromise will not gladly reward the uncompromising - but the programme as a whole seemed a touch naive about the human fallibility that makes whistle-blowers so rare and rarely honoured. Imagine for a moment that the company you work for is denounced for massive tax evasion and as a result slides into bankruptcy. As a taxpayer you might cheer the whistle-blower to the rafters but as an ex-employee you might have mixed feelings about his or her shining probity. It's neither nice or admirable but a world in which no corners were cut at all might be an uncomfortable place to live.

On the other hand, Our Friends in the North (BBC2) is currently demonstrating what a world without any whistle-blowers would look like - depressing, dark and with large patches of mould growing on the jerry-built walls. The mildew in Mary and Tosker's dream home stands for a larger rot in Harold Wilson's bright new Britain, a nation with more bent coppers than a plumber's yard. Peter Flannery's series continues to be wonderfully nimble in its private moments - touching and surprising in its exploration of innocent mistakes and sharply observant of political pretensions. But it is far more clumsy when it goes public and the grim shadow of agitprop stalks across the screen. One of the problems with moral corruption is that it is an invisible gas, often undetectable, even to those inhaling it most deeply. Here the establishment villains come across as connoisseurs of their double- dealing, savouring its rich scent with a pantomime relish. Still, the performances are excellent and the narrative is undeniably closing its grip.