The 5 Phases Of Whistleblowing
By Suelette DreyfusNovember 15, 2012
“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: https://whistleblowingsurvey.org