Are you brave enough to blow the whistle?

Friends, family, employers - everybody seems to be turning someone in. In America it has even become a political movement. But, argues Paul Vallely, the key tip-off usually comes too late and all too often the exposer pays the price
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The Independent Online
Have we become a nation of lace curtain-twitchers? You might be pardoned for thinking so. There appears to be a lot of sneaking and snitching around these days.

There is the vigilante register of local paedophiles set up by the Bournemouth Evening Echo. In Hampshire police are setting up a "shop a drunk driver" line while their colleagues in other forces, who do not share the West Yorkshire chief constable's view that brothels should be decriminalised, are dispatching letters to the homes of kerb-crawlers. There was the woman who told a magazine the gruesome details of a sexual assault by her ex- husband after a court declined to send him to prison. His neighbours in Stirling last week drove him out of the house in which he had quietly lived for the past two years. There was even a protest last week from MP Ken Livingstone, who is alarmed that New Labour's urge to suppress public dissent will force all contrary comment into anonymity - "a sneak's charter", the rebel MP called it.

No one likes a tell-tale tit. That's a lesson we learn in the playground when we first gain some understanding of the notion of group loyalty. But if sneaking, snitching, shopping, grassing or ratting are the terms we use to indicate disapproval, whistle-blowing is something we positively admire. And there are plenty of areas where it has emerged that a bit of earlier sneaking would have done us all good.

In recent years the Lyme Regis canoe drownings, the collapse of Barings Bank, the prosecution of Matrix Churchill executives, the Piper Alpha oil-rig fire, the BCCI banking scandal and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise might all have been avoided had someone spilled the beans.

In each case there was someone inside the organisation who realised early on that something was wrong but was afraid to speak out. More chilling is the example of the Dunblane gunman,Thomas Hamilton, who came to the attention of police, prosecutors and local councils on 25 separate occasions, to no avail.

Our ambivalence to the phenomenon of tale-telling is complex. In the case of Geoff McAllister, the man ousted from his home in Stirling, the gruesome details of his offence - two years earlier he had sexually assaulted his ex-wife using household ornaments in their old home in Portsmouth - brought down upon him not a custodial sentence but a mob of screaming women. After hearing his ex-wife's story, they denounced him as a pervert and a threat to their children. There it seemed understandable, if not necessarily justifiable that the wrath of society fell on the individual who was exposed.

Yet on other occasions it falls as heavily on the public-spirited exposer. A company director who discovered financial impropriety among his fellow directors at the DIY group Wickes blew the whistle on a scam to provide false documents to fool the firm's auditors. The company chairman resigned and another director was suspended. But it was the whistle-blowing finance director, Stuart Stradling, who became a virtual leper among the rest of the staff, who blame him for damaging the reputation of the company.

When, then, is it appropriate to violate loyalty to a small unit, like the family or the firm, in pursuit of some greater truth, like honesty or integrity? Asked to choose between betraying his friends or his country, EM Forster famously said he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. When does such a notion become scandalous and when is it mere common sense? And where do we draw the line between the two?

At work, fear of being branded a trouble-maker can prevent conscientious employees from complaining to a superior about mistakes. As the law stands, an employee is not allowed to disclose any information that might embarrass or cause harm to an employer without risking discipline, dismissal and action for breach of contract, or an injunction to prevent the disclosure.

There is nothing in the law to protect whistle-blowers against victimisation and they have no right to compensation if they lose their job as the result of their disclosure.

The example of Robbie Pennington is a case in point. Mr Pennington, who was a nurse at the Northumberland Mental Health NHS Trust, raised concerns about a major building project. For his pains he was sacked, and although he subsequently won his claim for unfair dismissal, his compensation was statutorily limited to less than half his annual salary. In another case, an employee of a food wholesaler realised his firm was supplying rotten meat to supermarkets. Again the whistle-blower was sacked.

The position of such employees has been made even more difficult as employers introduce gagging clauses into employment contracts. Inspectors at slaughterhouses who found BSE rules being dodged would now, since the creation of the Meat Hygiene Service a year ago, be bound by the Official Secrets Act.

But there is more to deter us from squealing than mere law. Workers are often torn between loyalty to their mates and duty to the public. The suspicion of malice still attaches itself to many instances of whistle- blowing.

So does that of veniality: refined noses wrinkle at the pounds 2m the police paid out last year to super-grasses (the average tip-off was pounds 5,500) as part of a campaign to reduce bank raids.

Guilt is what drives us to a sense of contrition, but that is very much something which has taken its grip since the arrival of Christianity. Much older is the sense of shame. Shame is a highly social emotion; it is about violating a common trust and letting the others down. Shame is a form of social control. It is about conformity. And sneaking violates that primeval social sense.

At the heart of it is a sense of trust. That was what was desecrated in the case of the Merseyside doctor who received pounds 15,000 for using his patients as guinea pigs for drug trials without their knowledge or consent, and was shopped by his partner. "Trust lies at the heart of the practice of medicine," said Sir Donald Irvine, president of the General Medical Council, as he struck Dr Geoffrey Fairhurst from the register. "Patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and well being. That trust must not be abused."

It is perhaps when that trust is assaulted that we feel happy about the sneaker's treachery. Did anyone object to the actions of the Cambridge policemen who insisted on nicking their own chief constable recently for speeding?

In the United States they do not leave the calibration of such subtlety to the human instinct. There you can buy a book called When to Rat on the Boss. Ratting is even built into the legal system in the form of plea- bargaining, where defendants are offered lesser punishment if they make a full confession and snitch on their friends. As a result the US authorities win convictions in more than 90 per cent of white-collar cases.

The Americans have even elevated the practice into a political philosophy. The movement known as "communitarianism" (which was adopted in part by Bill Clinton and which Tony Blair has flirted with) seeks a third way between an ever-expanding welfare state and an unbridled free market. Its founder, Amitai Etzioni, rejects the post-Sixties libertarian and individualist emphasis on rights and calls for a new sense of mutual responsibilities. In practice that means compulsory organ donation, random breath tests for drivers and pilots and the public humiliation of criminals. It also insists that people who are HIV-positive should have a legal obligation to inform their partners. In America, of course, they do not do things by halves. Police have recently launched a murder inquiry into the death of a broker who tried to blow the whistle on suspicious trading in the copper markets. Paul Scully was a copper broker at DLT, the American company whose most profitable client was Yasuo Hamanaka, the trader held responsible for $5bn of losses in June. Soon after, Mr Scully died when a fire swept through his home in Vermont, New England, as he slept.

In the UK the Nolan Committee has been operating on altogether less graphic parameters. In May, in its second report into standards in public life, it proposed a code of practice that would allow staff to raise worries inside an organisation without fear of recrimination.

Last month backbencher Don Touhig, Labour MP for Islwyn, introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Bill to provide genuine whistle-blowers with protection if their action is in the public interest. Top firms, including Cadbury-Schweppes, Esso and National Westminster Bank backed it, as did the Institute of Directors.

It reached its third reading but was then talked out, with the Government refusing to provide parliamentary time to complete its passage. It may be that they thought it was not in their interest to allow the bill to become law and give licence to whistle-blowers. Somewhere in Whitehall there is certain to be a civil servant who knows. Perhaps he or she would like to give me a ring?