Guidance For Journalists Working With Whistleblowers

A whistleblower is defined as a person who raises concern about wrongdoing. The term is quintessentially English derived from the practice of police officers blowing their whistles to alert colleagues and the public when they saw a crime committed and needed assistance.

It is important to grasp that definition because the term “whistleblower” is used generically across the media to describe various sources.

Whistleblowing involves a highly complex set of variables referred to as the Whistleblower’s Cross. Not everyone is a whistleblower.

In an era of litigation and compensation, some may even be vexatious whistleblowers and it is vital to distinguish legitimate whistleblowers from this group. In the interest of public safety and to maintain public confidence, the aim should be to write an evidence-based, objective and informative article, not one that furthers personal agendas.

Getting the background

For journalists who need background knowledge regarding the whistleblowing process Professor David Lewis of Middlesex University provides a wealth of information, research and resources on his website.

In the medical profession, the Shipman and Bristol Inquiries considered whistleblowing in great depth. It is worth reading through some of the discussions there.

Journalists need to familiarise themselves with the culture of the vocation they are about to investigate. Many medical whistleblowers feel that few journalists understand the machinations and complexities of the medical profession and its club culture. Harassment, victimisation and bullying are common in all professions, and may cloud the picture or even conceal real evidence

General Advice

1. It is worth considering the type of personality you are dealing with.

Legitimate whistleblowers are often quite intelligent, have a strong sense of justice and aim to improve the system.

They also know their subject very well and will have researched it in detail. A well informed whistleblower is a good source of information.

2. As a starting point, it best to obtain some basic documentation and a drafted chronology.

3. A set of questions should be developed to flesh out the basic chronology and ensure the effective use of time.

Most whistleblowers know their subject so well that they may not understand the focus of your story, and there is a tendency for them to go into irrelevant areas, thereby confusing matters.

4. Prior to any interview, it is important to note whether there are any health issues relating to the whistleblower. This will ensure that your questioning is sensitive and the person is not left unintentionally traumatised by your visit and/or phone-call.

Examples of the type of health problems can be demonstrated by Gary Walker. Other problems include post traumatic stress disorder which can be re-activated merely by narrating their stories again.

Noting the type of person you are about to interview, it may be best to choose a relaxed atmosphere that is not intimidating.

Post-interview distress is surprisingly common, and may even leave the whistleblower unwilling to engage in further discussions, thereby potentially depriving you of further information crucial to your story.

5. The whistleblower’s motive for seeking publicity should be noted. For instance, there may be a financial interest, or it may be an attempt to influence ongoing litigation.

6. One common complaint from whistleblowers is that journalists’ promises are never kept. It is polite to give the whistleblower a realistic time frame, and advise them in advance of any potential pitfalls.

This way, journalists do not burn their bridges with a potential long term source of future follow-up or other whistleblowing stories.

7. Whistleblowers may expect their entire life-story to be narrated in detail, and may not understand word count limits or publication style. It is therefore worth explaining this so there is basic understanding of what your job is.

Whistleblowers often know other whistleblowers and it is important to leave a job on amicable terms as other stories may well be provided to you in the future.

8. The whistleblower may wish remain anonymous. You should then identify how best to keep your source confidential and whether the material you present could potentially place them at risk of inadvertent identification.

9. Tape recording and note-taking when dealing with whistleblowers acts as a safety precaution in the event the whistleblower changes their story or of legal repercussions.

It may be worth keeping this information secure as the story may well develop further in years to come.

10. All available documentation must be reviewed – preferably the original version.

This should be kept in electronic and hardcopy – documents such as any approaches to investigatory authorities and their responses, any evidence verifying the extent of the whistleblowing and any prior reports or documents.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 can be used to obtain further information from authorities regarding any reports/ previous concerns or documentation surrounding the event being investigated.

11. It is important to consider the potential risks to the whistleblower, yourself and the publisher.

A classic example of repercussions after whistleblowing and journalistic intervention is Undercover Nurse,  who was struck off initially and was subsequently reinstated.

This is a direct personal consequence of participating in a programme. It is best avoided as young professionals will have no livelihood left if they are placed at significant risk.

12. Most professions have a regulatory body, and seeking advice on their code of ethics from their Standards and Ethics Department is worthwhile.

13. It may be that whistleblowers are contemplating or undergoing litigation, and your article must not prejudice the case.

Moreover, it is important that you don’t find yourself in contempt of court, therefore it is important to check any court documents provided to you.

14. Confidentiality is a problem in all professions. For medical whistleblowers, it is important to consider patient confidentiality.

The patients may agree to being featured, but this must be verified. A breach of confidentiality can mean whistleblowers are struck off, and is also a dismissible offence in the health service.

15. Finally, if the whistleblower has a lawyer or any colleagues/experts in support of them, it’s important to interview them. It is vital to ensure that your story is as factually watertight as possible.

16. In whistleblowing cases, the possibility of litigation is quite high, and injuctions by the whistleblower’s employers or other interested parties are common, so it is vital to gather as much evidence on the story as possible.

Useful Links

1. Five years of the Public Interest Act UK? : Are Whistleblowers Protected Adequately

2. Whistleblowers and the Law of Defamation

3. Bristol Inquiry

4. Whistleblowing and Patient Safety. Bolsin, Pal, Wilmshurst and Pena

5. Is Whistleblowing Safe?

6. GMC’s Raising Concerns Guidance

7. NMC’s Raising Concerns Guidance

8. How to Deal With Leaks and Whistleblowers 

9. For or Whom the Whistle blows

10. Towards Greater Protection of Whistleblowers. transparency International.

11. Resolution 1729 (2010) – Protection of Whistleblowers

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