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The 5 Phases Of Whistleblowing

“This is the end of my policing career,” New South Wales Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox said on Monday. “I realised that from the moment that I decided to speak out.”

And so Fox essentially threw himself on his sword when he dared to tell Lateline last week what he believes to be true about the Catholic Church deliberately hiding sexual abuse of children, including efforts to silence police investigations. He says such is the culture in the police force that someone like him would never be let back into the fold.

His bravery in stepping forward has reaped multiple benefits for society. It has made public the allegations of repugnant behavior by Church officials, including manipulative cover-ups as well as the original sex crimes. And there was the moral coup of finally winning a long-overdue royal commission into this evil, as was announced this week by the Prime Minister.

But the fallout for Peter Fox highlights the retribution and emotional trauma many whistleblowers endure when they follow their inner moral compass.

Like many cops, he puts on a stoic face to the media about the personal cost. But he admitted that some “terrible things” had happened to his family and himself, due to his stance on this church-related matter and another matter. They had received threats, including at least one that arrived on police letterhead. The threats caused his wife to have a “complete nervous breakdown”. People began suggesting Fox was mentally unstable. Sadly, his experience is all too common among whistleblowers.

Many whistleblowers seem to go through what I call the Five Stages of Whistleblowing (with apologies to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross for subverting her book title, The Five Stages of Grief). The five phases:

1. You think, ‘This must be an honest mistake’

Surely no one in your community would abuse children or cover it up, right? These are your colleagues, your friends, your church. There’s just been a big misunderstanding, really, and we’ll sort it out on Monday.

2. It dawns, ‘Oh, God, these people are really doing something wrong!’

You have to tell someone! But wait — you trust your larger organisation. They always tell you to report wrongdoing. If you do that, surely they will stop the wrongdoing.

3. You realise the organisation is in cover-up mode

It’s not only going to protect the paedophiles (or other wrongdoers), it’s coming after you. The whispers begin to circulate that you are mentally unstable. You are expelled from the community and shunned.

4. The vicious attacks begin

You’ve been labelled as “mad”, but that didn’t work well enough. So now you are “bad”: you’re a fraud, a liar, a criminal. You didn’t pay a parking ticket in 1987 and now owe $860,000 in fines. The character assassination begins in earnest. Why? If you’re not credible, neither is the truth you have revealed.

5. The breakdown

You’re isolated, and broken. You grieve for the loss of your life as you knew it. Now you really do have depression. Often along the way you lose your spouse, and your house.

It doesn’t always happen this way. Some whistleblowers have enough human support around them to avoid stage five. Some good organisations take real steps to intervene — including disciplining the wrong-doers and threat-makers — to stop this terrible process. Those organisations with true dedication defend the whistleblower like they mean it. However, many do not.

The NSW Police have form in persecuting whistleblowers, as illustrated by former detective Deborah Locke whose story is told in Underbelly: The Golden Mile.

George Pell’s grumbly acceptance of the royal commission was not a good start for the church.

Fox’s case underlines the need for strong laws protecting whistleblowers. Last month, Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie, a former whistleblower himself, proposed much-needed new laws to protect whistleblowers in the Commonwealth Government. The Government has not said it will support Wilkie’s Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Bill 2012, instead it suggests it has its own legislation to propose. The Government’s proposal is very likely to be weak; it has promised new whistleblowing laws in March 2010, September 2010 and June 2011. But it did nothing, until Wilkie finally stepped up with his own version, thus calling the Government’s bluff.

The federal Coalition has been silent on Wilkie’s bill — and it shouldn’t be. Strong whistleblower laws are a cost-effective way to stamp out corruption. Further, the Australian population is, quite frankly, getting jack of the weekly media reports of serious wrongdoing peppered throughout society’s institutions, including government, churches, sport, banks and elsewhere. If passed, Wilkie’s proposed whistleblowing laws would make Australia’s laws the best of their type worldwide.

It’s not hard to do. In August, the Australian Capital Territory enacted similar legislation. The ACT’s law is presently the world’s best in a number of areas. It has garnered well-deserved praise from commentators and critics alike for raising the bar.

Whistleblowing is often controversial, as Fox has learned over the past week. But more than 80 per cent of Australians believe whistleblowers should be supported, not punished, for revealing serious wrongdoing, even if they reveal inside information, according to a May 2012 Newspoll of 1,211 Australians commissioned by Griffith and Melbourne Universities. Moreover, 87 per cent want whistleblowers to be able to use the media to draw attention to wrongdoing.

The fact that Australians are outraged at the treatment of Fox is a good sign. It means Australia is finally valuing the brave actions of whistleblowers.  Now we need our parliamentarians to catch up, by enacting better laws to protect them.

Dr Suelette Dreyfus is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, where she is studying the impact of digital technology on whistleblowing:

21 comments on this story
by Ian

I can't think of one possible argument against this.

November 15, 2012 @ 3:20pm
by Solid gold creativity (aka Narelle Hanratty)

The first step to writing a different outcome for people like Peter Fox is to give up entrenching the "received wisdom" that it is suicide to speak out and only terminal damage and havoc can result.

It doesn't have to be the case, though it will be if we keep saying it is.

Andrew Wilkie's example shows it's not inevitable that the person be mortally damaged.

And let's change this stupid term, "whistleblower", too. Peter Fox is a man acting with integrity; that's who he is. He's not some concept.

November 15, 2012 @ 3:50pm
by Callum

Classic organizational behavior theory and proven by empirical study.

Phase 1. Indirect intimidation 1. Isolation 2. Nullification
Phase 2. Direct Intimidation 3. Defamation 4. Expulsion

Is it me or is this now the dominant cultural script of most organizations in Australia? Do we really want to live like this? Are we going to continue to accept leaders that have risen to the top with these qualities? Our current leaders have shown complete lack of moral standards from early in their career, why do we as a nation keep accepting this behavior?

November 15, 2012 @ 5:09pm
by Greg

With respect, Dr Dreyfuss omits a very important chapter. The bureacracies established to support and assist whistleblowers are a disgrace. Certainly in Queensland we have credible whistleblowers who make complaints to the Crime & Misconduct Commissiion (CMC). The CMC investigates only a paltry 1% of complaints. The bulk of complaints are referred back to the offending department. I assisted a public servant whistleblower and prior to a trial learned that senior officers of the whistleblower's department were intimidating witnesses. A clearer case of an attempt to pervert the course of justice is hard to imagine. The CMC were advised and did nothing except to refer this criminal behaviour back to the department. The matter is now in its third year of inaction. I recommend interested people look at this this web site for a taste of what happens to whistleblowers in Queensland and don't think it isn't happening in your state:

November 15, 2012 @ 6:04pm
by Steve

Peter Fox, stand proud, you can walk tall with your head held high. We have a great country in Australia, however, we have become apathetic in our attitude to the abuse of innocent people, by others in position of power. This is further aggrevated by the fear and weakness of colleagues to expose what has been, and still is, going on daily. External bodies need to investigate the Department for Child Protection in WA, the WA Police in the area of child protection, and the operation of the Perth Children's Court.

November 15, 2012 @ 7:39pm
by Ulyssees Butterfly

Actually speaking out is the price of staying sane. To buckle down and swallow rubbish ends in cancer or mental illness. You have to speak out and let the chips fall where they do. Positive action will always soothe the sad soul and the loneliness better than a thousand regrets at opening the door and walking through it. Just keep on going with the positive action, it's a long road and it's only over when you say it is. And you just might see some bodies, metaphorically speaking, float down the river before it is over. Really.

November 15, 2012 @ 9:56pm
by Polydore

Greg's point is an excellent one. Dr Dreyfus' argument is really creative, but it could be enhanced by adopting Greg's observation. It's not just the effect of accusations of mental illness on whistleblowers, but the complicity of the professions. How on earth could psychiatrists allow themselves to be used against whistleblowers in the past (my recollection is that, 40 years ago, Sgt. Arantz was whisked straight off to Prince Henry hospital for psychiatric observation. Did not Vince Neary have to undergo a psychiatric examination?)? Now we have watchdogs to protect whistleblowers, and protected disclosures legislation, but where are the prosecutions for breaches? They just don't happen. Whistleblowers continue to be brave individuals who pay a heavy price for their public spiritedness.
Just a minor quibble with Dreyfus: the sentence "It has made public the allegations of repugnant behavior by Church officials" needs qualification. Fox made public 'some' allegations. We already knew a great deal about this "repugnant behaviour" from the victims and public interest groups like Broken Rites. It's an irony, but the proposed O'Farrell investigation by Margaret Cunneen SC, might have been a better way to go than a royal commission of huge scope. Targeting police interference at the behest of the Church is specific and, in a sense, more pressing. If we are to have confidence in investigations of child abuse, we need some resolution of Fox's specific claims against the police.

November 16, 2012 @ 3:20pm
by Gerard Toohey

In the voluminous and noisy details to come from the royal commission can the global mail please continue to ride "shotgun" on this brave policeman's career and the safety of his family.

November 17, 2012 @ 11:17am
by bon apetite

As a victim of Police abuse and stalkers in general for over 2 years I can only empathise what testing times whistle blowers must go through especially ones who are faced with such moral indignation.

November 17, 2012 @ 11:32am
by Helen Neville

An excellent article and there should be more to highlight the mechanics of how a whistleblower is treated. At the time, speaking personally, from taking action that was ethically responsible, I was not prepared for the total disaccreditation of my position and mental state. Actually perhaps it wouldn't be good for a potential whistleblower to know what to expect, but then at least the whistleblower could recognise the stages referred to by the article. If more whistleblowers surfaced and were well supported, just think at how society could benefit in the long run.

November 17, 2012 @ 11:59am
by Peter Timmins

While the dithering by the Federal Government over whistleblower protection is worthy of comment and condemnation, NSW already has whistleblower protection legislation in a law generally rated by the experts as good if not in the world beater class.

Inspector Fox in theory at least would be protected against discrimination if he went public with his claim of improper conduct by NSW Police in covering up or derailing investigation of child abuse if he had first made substantially the same disclosure to the police, the Police Integrity Commission or the ICAC, that whoever he approached decided not to investigate or had not completed the investigation within six months, or had investigated the matter but not recommended any action be taken, or failed to notify him whether the disclosure would be investigated within six months of the disclosure being made.

The penalty for reprisals against a person who makes a disclosure in accordance with the act is a fine of $11,000 or imprisonment for 2 years, or both.( I don't think anyone has been successfully prosecuted since the introduction of the act in 1994.)

That Inspector Fox has no confidence in the system is no surprise but a sad comment on the state of the law, attitudes tolerated in the police service, and the way the law is implemented.

For more on changes (seen as improvements, if not enough) in NSW whistleblower protection law since the election of the O'Farrell government see:

November 17, 2012 @ 2:35pm
by Chris R

In reply to the above comment how can the whistleblower and his family feel safe when the very people at are to protect and enforce the law are attacking him? The irony of one of the condemners of the acts investigating its self. Is this not again asking the impossible??

November 18, 2012 @ 8:30am
by Michael D. Breen

A drunk was trying to get his key into a door on the ground floor, with much huffing, blowing, cursing etc. A woman from upstairs shouted, "You are trying to get your key into the wrong door". "That's nothing you've got your head out the wrong window", he defended.
I like your article, Suelette. Maybe it is our convict beginnings but we seem to have a culture which operates against all kinds of reporting of wrongs. But when the cops, the church, the banks and the pollies are all in the frame there must be a lot of supportive community silences. It is hard for some to realize that democracy is not a spectator sport.

November 19, 2012 @ 1:23pm
by Kirren

I remember listening to a program where the American system of supporting Whistleblowers was outlined. While it was little more than a percentage cut of any money recovered as an effect of the whistleblowing the program did highlight the large sacrifices any whistleblower makes even with any supporting legislation. The act of someone making the moral decision to sacrifice part of their life to do some right should be supported by law in the firmest way. The fact that only Andrew Wilkie seems to be interested in introducing new legislation in this area with such overwhelming public support is quite puzzling.

November 19, 2012 @ 6:51pm
by Paul C

Having been a Federal public servant a few years ago, I understand how confusing it can be just deciding if you should report something that you may believe to be dishonest. You are constantly told that there is a system in place to protect people who expose shady dealings but in the same breath, told to make sure that you complaint is correct or you could find yourself in the hot seat. So somewhere in the five steps above, perhaps there should be a step pertaining to the confusion encountered when you try and find out if something is practice is unethical or downright against the rules, followed by the guilt that comes from not being able to find any information to help you.
I could say that just about anyone involved in the government would come across things that they would question as "shady". The problem isnt seeing the events, rather the problem is weighing up the rules, the risks to yourself (both financially and professionally) and your own ethics and morals.
I took the easy way out and just quit.

November 21, 2012 @ 9:24am
by Yasmin

The fact that Peter Fox has the courage to expose these issues, his comments have caused him a lot of personal grief,putting himself aside, he says "it is not about me " Its about what we can do for may of these victims as he says that 'these crimes never go away, they never get over it "
This interview is an inspiration

November 24, 2012 @ 5:55am
by charles norville

The media are to blame for cover ups. All that is needed for corruption to succeed is for media to makes it own assessment of a particular individual who is deemed a malcontent by the media and its collaborative wrong doer source – and its readers. Complain to the Aus Press Council for fair hearing? That doesn't work either. There are three forms of whistleblowers that I can note:
1. The malicious informant or dobber who may be simply a malcontent. You can be angry wanting justice and be a malcontent which serves to demean the informant. The malicious informant may lie or may give good information. It’s the motivation that is judged not the deed.
2. The statutory informant who has a legislative obligation as well as a moral and socially ethical obligation to expose information.
3. The citizen whistleblower or individual who feels a moral and ethical obligation to expose information.

November 26, 2012 @ 11:08am
by cm

We need the government to immediately give financial support to this poor man who is SO brave in bringing this out to public scrutiny against all odds - the police force and the catholic church.
The abuse of our children is the most appalling crime against humanity - and everyone has known about this for at least 10 -20 years - there is no way we should let anyone get away with this by saying "oh that was in the past - people thought so and so" this is a crime against humanity. One child abused is one child too many.

April 3, 2013 @ 5:36pm
Show previous 18 comments
by Phil

I to am a whistle blower on corruption and have been treated the same as Inspector Fox, the organisation believes the corrupt and goes out of its way to protect them by covering things up, my story will come out, when I don't know, but the officers that have assisted in the cover up will find out it would have been easier to tell the truth....

May 31, 2013 @ 9:46pm
by Simon Warriner

The problem begins in a political system comprised of individuals whose first act is to display either ignorance of, or contempt for, conflicted interests. They stand to represent an electorate, but swear allegiance to a party platform.

It is this ignorant failing that they bring to the making of our laws and the oversight of our public administration.

It is this ignorance that sees public administration regularly commit fraud by paying damaged individuals to remain silent about the illegal acts that damaged them, in order to protect those who did the damage. Negotiating that silence in exchange for public money is an act of fraud against the public purse.

June 22, 2013 @ 8:19pm
by Aaron Beck

Hey guys

Check my case out - Beck v Commissioner of Police and Beck v State of NSW Dec 2012 NSW Supreme Court.

Not only did they withdraw their defence to protect the two corrupt police from committing perjury, they are on court transcript handing the incorrect documents to the court, submitting a Superintendent's Diary was not an accountable item, when we all know it is and admitting this same Superintendent destroyed the said diary, the property of the NSW Police Force and that's common practice.

They have appealed the judgement, the case they never defended. They also have the problem of an unfair dismissal case before the IRC, where all will be revealed in great depth.

As for the political system, I emailed every NSW MP my preliminary complaint to the PIC so, if at a later date nothing is done, those in public office may find themselves, answering a charge before the supreme court, a civil tort that will no doubt cause some concern for those holding public office

August 26, 2013 @ 5:30am
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