'To whistleblow is like a death sentence': five people who risked everything to speak out

Five brave ex-employees tell Charlie Cooper what it's like to stick your head above the parapet

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Nevres Kemal was a social worker with Haringey Council between 2004 and 2007. After raising concerns with senior managers about child protection failings there, she wrote a letter in February 2007 to the Department of Health warning that children in the borough were at risk. Six months later, 17-month-old Peter Connelly (Baby P) died at the hands of his mother and two other men, despite receiving more than 60 visits from council health and social workers. Ms Kemal, who did not work on the Baby P case, eventually lost her job (due to an unrelated complaint). She has since set up a charity, the Raising My Voice Foundation, for whistleblowers in her local community.

"There's always been an edge to me. I was born in Muswell Hill. My parents were Turkish-Cypriot, they came and settled in the late 1950s. Caring started from the age of four. I would look after people who were sick in the family. I went into social work. I had the skills, so I thought I might as well get the qualifications to match.

I've never been one for progressing, stepping over someone to get a better position. I never kissed arse. I would always challenge, always speak my mind, and never play games. I don't have a lot of respect for status.

I went to a Catholic convent school. The attitude of the nuns was: 'We have a mask, we have an outward symbol of who we are, therefore I deserve a level of respect'. I was always getting into trouble for talking back. I remember a charity week when I was 13. Pupils were putting their lunch money into the collection box but I happened to walk into the nun's dining room and they were having a steak dinner. I called one of them a hypocrite. For that I was called to the front of assembly. The humiliation of the punishment stays with me to this day.

To whistleblow now is like a death sentence. Initially people ignored my letter to the Department of Health. Nobody bothered writing back. No one was interested. Then [the Baby P case] came out in the press.

There was no feeling of vindication. It doesn't matter if I was wrong or right: it didn't save that kid's life, it didn't save me and my family four and a half years of hell.

After the story ran in the papers many people sent me money through the post. I had over £5,000. So I decided to set up the Raising My Voice Foundation. It is for anyone – I don't discriminate. The way I see it, people whistleblow on their lives all the time – about their job centre, about their doctor. As soon as we intervene it's amazing the level of respect that's given and the care that's given."

Michael Woodford , 52: 'I was warned my life was in danger'

Michael Woodford was the president and CEO of Olympus. In 2011 he was informed of allegations that Olympus had bought three companies with no turnover for $1bn and paid $700m in "merger and acquisition fees" to unknown parties in the Cayman Islands – for nothing. Later it was alleged that the fraud involved "anti-social elements": code for the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia. After confronting the chairman of the board, and repeatedly calling for an internal investigation, Woodford was sacked. He immediately went public. The ensuing scandal led to the downfall of Olympus's powerful chairman, Tsuyoshi Kikukawa; Woodford was awarded a £10m pay-off for his dismissal.

"I have always been fastidious about honesty. I once lost a cufflink on a business trip with Olympus, claimed it on insurance, found it again and reimbursed the company. Some colleagues thought it very odd, but I think in black and white.

I was born in Staffordshire, but grew up in Liverpool, with no indoor toilet, no shower and no bath. I went to school in a second-hand blazer and got free school milk.

I remember how I once took some money from my mum's purse to go to the local shop to buy a bar of chocolate. I came back home and my mother looked at me and said: 'If I can't trust my own son not to steal from me, who can I trust?'.

After I learnt of the allegations made against Olympus, in a Japanese magazine called FACTA, I called a lunchtime meeting with the President and Vice President of the company. I challenged them. Until then, I still didn't believe [the allegations of fraud]. I didn't think the people I worked with could do anything like that. They were so evasive. It was then I realised that there was something very bad at the top of the corporation for which I was responsible.

I could have looked the other way and said: 'This all happened before I became CEO'. But to me it was always very clear. You either become complicit, or you challenge it.

I wrote six letters, copying in every member of the board. I pleaded that these matters be investigated. Not one member of the board would support me – and I was sacked.

I went public within an hour. I was scared. I felt the best way to safety was to [be] transparent and open. FACTA magazine had alleged the Yakuza were involved. That was scary – that there were people with missing fingers and tattoos who might want to hurt me.

Then Jake Adelstein, the world- renowned expert in the Yakuza, wrote to warn me that my life was in danger.

I did more than 500 interviews, morning till night, week after week. The story was evolving all the time. My wife helped coordinate it. There was only the two of us, and our London flat became a bunker.

She found it harder. She became very scared and came close to having a nervous breakdown. At night, she would scream, for several minutes, in a trance-like state. You wouldn't want your worst enemy to go through what we went through.

I have a much more jaundiced view of life and human nature now. What haunts me most is the [betrayal of] colleagues who I had considered friends, who had worked with me and supported me – when I was dismissed, I suddenly became persona non grata.

That's what hurts. I thought I had good judgement. Some of them I'd worked with for 30 years. Just an email, a text, a phone call would have been enough. I got nothing.

But I'd do it again. I think life is such a lottery. You can be born in a nice middle-class family in the middle of the country or you could be born in the middle of Africa, starving.

Right from the beginning, it's luck. I have an inherent guilt at my own good fortune relative to other people on the planet, and I'm driven by a desire to try and redress that balance."

'Exposure: Inside the Olympus Scandal – How I Went From CEO to Whistleblower', by Michael Woodford is published by Portfolio Penguin

Margaret Haywood, 62: 'I knew I'd have to take the backlash'

Margaret Haywood was an experienced nurse who worked undercover for BBC Panorama, secretly filming the neglect of elderly patients on the Peel and Stewart ward at Royal Sussex County Hospital, in Brighton. After the programme was aired in July 2005, the hospital reported her to the Nursing and Midwifery Council for a breach of confidentiality, but she retained the support of the Royal College of Nursing. In April 2009, she was struck off as a nurse, but reinstated later that year. She now trains nurses and carers in the private sector, specialising in safeguarding vulnerable adults.

"I never thought of myself as a whistleblower. I thought of myself as a nurse who was doing her job as best she could.

I became a nurse because of my parents. I was 25 when I lost my mother, she was only in her early fifties. She was terminally ill and I felt awful that I couldn't do more for her.

My dad was in his sixties when he died. I buried him on a Friday in April 1984, and started work as a nurse on the Monday. The very first ward I was allocated to was the ward he died on. I thought: 'If I can get through this, I can get through anything'.

In 2004, I advised the BBC on a programme about care in the community. The BBC received lots of letters raising concerns about problems in the NHS. I wanted to do something to put a stop to it, to improve standards. So I applied for jobs in different parts of the country with my own name, my own qualifications as an agency nurse. I made it clear to the BBC that my responsibilities as a professional had to take precedence over the filming.

The moment I walked on the Peel and Stewart ward, I knew that there were major problems. I came across a woman with liver cancer screaming out in pain because the staff hadn't given her pain relief. Another lady was afraid to ask for the toilet because she was scared of the staff. There was no leadership on the ward. It was horrendous.

I was worried what was going to happen to me after the Panorama programme came out, but I thought: 'I've got to take this on the chin, I've got to stand up and have the courage of my convictions'. What most worried me was that people I had worked with in the past might lose their respect for me because of what I'd done.

Most absolutely supported me. I had brilliant support from the Royal College of Nursing, from the BBC, from family and friends and former colleagues. I had letters from elderly people from different parts of the country.

But the hospital reported me to the Nursing and Midwifery Council for breaching confidentiality. They tried to shoot the messenger. I was struck off as a nurse. It was awful, absolutely heartbreaking… I felt like I'd failed my dad. But at no point did I regret what I had done – absolutely not. I still believed it was the right thing to do. I knew I'd have to take the backlash.

A few days before the appeal was due, the Nursing and Midwifery Council rang the Royal College of Nursing and reinstated me, changing my punishment to a caution. It was such a relief.

As far as I'm concerned, the NHS is a closed shop. You only have to look at the reports that have come out lately. These things are still happening."

Craig Murray , 54: 'A career like that was an awful lot of throw away'

Craig Murray was the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004. In October 2002, he gave a speech highlighting the heavy use of torture in Uzbek prisons. At the time, Uzbekistan was being courted by the USA and the UK as a key strategic ally in the War on Terror. In the build-up to the Iraq War he sent an email to then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw outlining the hypocrisy of USA/UK policy in condemning torture in Iraq, while remaining silent on torture in Uzbekistan. A few months later he was subject to disciplinary proceedings over his conduct in office. Though he was cleared of all but one minor charge (keeping a diplomatic car out late) he was removed from his position the following year. His relationship with an Uzbek dancer, Nadira Alieva, now his wife, and the breakdown of his first marriage, were subject to intense press scrutiny. He had a breakdown in 2003, collapsing during a medical exam, and still suffers from heart problems.

"When I went to Tashkent I was focused on being a career diplomat. I was ambitious. I did not go out there looking to have an argument with the Foreign Office.

Not for one moment did I think I shouldn't do this, though. I'm not a very religious person, but I was brought up going to Sunday school. Of course with that comes all kinds of images of Christ's passion – you're brought up as a Christian to regard torture as a bad thing.

The first speech was actually done in a very establishment way. I could play the bureaucratic game very well. I got that speech cleared largely by saying things which it was very hard for the Foreign Office to oppose – officially the UK is in favour of human rights!

But when it came to the telegram to Jack Straw – I knew that would get me sacked. I regarded what we were doing as so immoral. I didn't want anything to do with it any more.

I have absolutely no doubt that the allegations against me were simply fabricated internally. The most damning was one of giving visas to people who had sex with me. There was no evidence at all to support it – nothing that was ever shown to me. I think the whole thing was fabricated in the Foreign Office to shut me up.

The effect on my health, which has never properly recovered, has been the most worrying thing about it – along with losing a job and a career that I was actually very good at. The Foreign Office now puts out the idea that I wasn't anyone particular, just some drunk who walked past the Foreign Office and got the job of ambassador to Uzbekistan. I had actually done a lot of very serious work for them. An investment in a career like that is an awful lot to throw away.

Undoubtedly the whole thing precipitated my divorce and later re-marriage. There were pre-existing problems in my marriage… but the whole thing certainly made the breakdown of my marriage much more horrible. All the stuff in the press about my wife, Nadira, was the standard Number 10 spinning trick. They decided they needed to discredit me.

Unfortunately Uzbekistan hasn't got any better at all. The Andijan massacre occurred shortly after I'd left, where approximately 1,000 pro-democracy protesters were gunned down. Now, probably 300 to 400 opposition figures are killed every year. There are still some 10,000 political prisoners and the number of people being tortured every year is in the thousands.

The UK Government doesn't see the people of Uzbekistan and how they suffer. They really do not care at all about the torture and disappearance of Uzbek people. They only care about Uzbekistan as a base and transit route for Afghanistan.

I have to face up to the fact that I'm deeply disappointed by the results of what I did. I did think that there would be a revulsion from the alliance with Karimov once people knew what his regime was like. I thought most people would think about torture the way I do, that the idea of torturing people would be revolting to British society. Unfortunately, I discovered that there are politicians – and not just politicians – who are very happy to justify it."

Frank Serpico, 77: 'I inspired others to follow their moral compass'

Frank Serpico was the New York police officer who exposed widespread corruption within the force, which he joined in 1959. In the late 1960s, as a plain-clothes police officer, he risked his own safety to collect evidence on police protection rackets. In April 1970, he contributed to an influential New York Times article exposing corruption in the NYPD. The next year he was shot in the face during a drugs raid. Fellow officers failed to immediately call an ambulance. His story was told in the film Serpico (1973) starring Al Pacino. He now lives alone in a wood cabin in upstate New York.

"'Whistleblower' is not my favourite term. It has a negative connotation. I try to refer to us as lamp-lighters.

What inspires people to do it? Why are there so few when practically everybody within an organisation knows what's going on? The first thing that comes to mind in my case is an incident when I was a young teen. I was shining shoes in my father's shop. One day, in walks a burly, red-faced police officer. I was totally overwhelmed by his presence as he walked up in his blue uniform, his brass buttons, his gun prominently displayed. He walks in, climbs up and requests a shine.

I gave him the best damn shine I ever gave. As I stood back to admire my work, he stepped down and walked straight out the door without giving me a tip, without even saying thank you.

The following week he came back again. My father said to me: 'Here comes that piece of… again'. He walked out from behind the counter and confronted him at the door. He says to him: 'Would you like a shine officer?'.

He said: 'Yeah'. My father put out his hand and he said: '10 cents. Pay first'.

This big burly fool made a u-turn and never came back. I learnt that you don't take another's labour for nothing and you stand up to authority when it's corrupt.

When I became a police officer, I was, you might say, naive enough to believe that people within the agency would correct corruption if you pointed it out to higher authority. Now, they would like to give the impression that it's all well and good. It's over 40 years already. Do you think the New York City Police Department has ever forgiven me?

I don't know what the worst thing about being a whistleblower is. Apart from the nightmarish, Kafka-esque treatment they put me through: the threats and the torments and the attempts to break your spirit. The other thing was the realisation that your own colleagues don't back you up in a time of need.

The old 'honest cops' always say: 'You always talk about the corrupt cops, you never talk about the good cops,' and I say: 'That's a good point, were you a good cop? Why didn't you come and back me up?' One of them shot back: 'What and be an outcast like you?'.

Now it's like they'd like to forget I ever existed. I offered the NYPD my weapons for their museum – they rejected them.

To this day, I get mail from police officers who want to tell me about problems in their force. Still, I have achieved freedom of mind, a clear conscience and I have inspired others to follow their moral compass time and again. It's an ongoing battle everyday. You have to fight for integrity.