Guest blog | Whistleblowing and Journalism
Having the ability to speak up and have your workplace concerns heard in confidence is an important right regardless of your profession, but in many ways, whistleblowing is especially important in the journalism industry. On this guest blog post, Burcak Dikmen from whistleblowing charity Protect explains the role of whistleblowing and the relationship between whistleblowing and journalism.
What is Whistleblowing?
Whistleblowing is raising public interest concerns relating to wrongdoing, malpractice or risk in the workplace. This could be fraud in a bank, food hygiene concerns, or issues relating to patient safety. And whilst whistleblowing concerns are not limited to widescale wrongdoing, recent scandals in the media such as the NHS Shrewsbury maternity scandal and NHS West Suffolk hospital (where staff were subject to fingerprinting to help identify a whistleblower) have highlighted serious patient safety concerns, as well as the hospital’s negative handling of whistleblowers. Concerns also tend to be in the public interest if the wrongdoing affects other people and their interests - not the whistleblower alone.
Whilst the term ‘whistleblowing’ is not defined legally, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (“PIDA”) – which talks in terms of ‘protected disclosures’ – comes closest. This piece of employment law, which makes it unlawful for employers to victimise staff who speak out, provides structure to what types of concerns can constitute ‘whistleblowing’ and who individuals can blow the whistle to.
Whistleblowers – employees or workers – can raise concerns to their employer and/or relevant regulatory body known as ‘prescribed bodies’, or through the police or media.
Whistleblowing and Journalism
PIDA acknowledges whistleblowers will turn to external channels such as the media to escalate their concerns. This may be because the whistleblower may not feel comfortable in raising concerns directly with their employer due to a lack of trust, or where they have raised it with their employer and/or the relevant regulator, but both have failed to act or deal with the matter.
Approaching the press can be powerful in addressing wrongdoing but to ensure ‘responsible’ whistleblowing, PIDA requires whistleblowers to justify the reasonableness of raising concerns to the press. However, there are times when going directly to the media in the first instance is the best course of action. This may be the case if there is an immediate danger posed to the public, for example, such as a food product safety issue or where there is an environmental danger.
Whilst the public have little immediate power in acting on the concerns, media exposure has the power to incite widespread public opinion on the wrongdoing. The media is therefore integral in providing that final layer of oversight which has the power to hold relevant bodies to account by forcing them to act. This can potentially lead to wider changes within a sector, such as increased regulation.
Journalists rely on whistleblowers to expose wrongdoing across a range of sectors to generate news stories but in making a conscious choice to use the press to raise their concerns, the risks related to whistleblowing in an employment context can often be overlooked. As the whistleblower may weigh these risks in deciding whether to approach the press, journalists too should be more cautious of this when working with whistleblowers, particularly if a whistleblower has yet to settle an ongoing claim.
From time to time, and if appropriate, (and with agreement from the whistleblower) Protect has acted as a go between with the media to help expose a whistleblowing issue. For example, we worked with The Guardian to expose a flaw in the Utilities Act, in the article ‘Ofgem exploited national security law to silence us, whistleblowers claim’ and we have assisted in news documentaries such as Dispatches and Panorama.
Protect will be relying on the support of the press to help publicise its draft Whistleblowing Bill which calls on the Government to reform PIDA, which is falling behind international law and best practice. Protect’s draft Bill offers greater protection for whistleblowers to include volunteers, non-executive directors, self-employed workers, foster parents, those in public office, and the clergy.
Visit www.protect-advice.org.uk to find out more about Protect, our draft PIDA reform bill and our work. #NewLaw4Whistleblowers
The IMPRESS Whistleblowing Service – Operated by Protect
If you work for a news publication and you believe your employer (editor, line manager or other person) is involved in wrongdoing or is encouraging you or others in your workplace to commit unethical or unlawful practices and you want to report it confidentially, you can contact our whistleblowing line run by Protect on 0800 221 8548 at any time.
Protect provides free independent and confidential advice. This line is managed by qualified lawyers with a wealth of experience in whistleblowing law and practice. Please visit https://impress.press/regulation/whistleblowing.html and Protect’s website, www.protect-advice.org.uk for more information.
UPCOMING IMPRESS MEMBER BENEFIT | WHISTLEBLOWING WEBINAR
Wednesday March 18th - 12:00-13:00pm
Join us for a webinar exploring whistleblowing for journalists. Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, Complaints and Investigatiosn Manager at IMPRESS, will be sitting down with Andrew Pepper-Parsons, Head of Policy at Protect to discuss the IMPRESS whistleblowing service, how to create a culture of openness at your publication and how to navigate both internal and external whistleblowing in your newsroom.
If you are an IMPRESS member and would like to join the webinar, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Protect is the UK’s leading whistleblowing organisation. Since 1993, our free, confidential Advice Line has been supporting whistleblowers who wish to speak up about workplace wrongdoing. Each year, our advisers handle more than 3,000 cases, and to date, we have supported around 40,000 whistleblowers.
In addition to our Advice Line, we work with many diverse organisations offering training and consultancy to help them realise the benefits a good whistleblowing culture brings.
We believe whistleblowing is a good thing - it protects the public interest, helps employers identify and manage risk, and holds organisations to account. We want more people to speak up, to stop harm.
Protect aims to make whistleblowing work for individuals, organisations and society in the following three ways:
Our Advice Line - provides free and confidential information and advice to around 3,000 whistleblowers each year
Training and consultancy - we work with organisations to instil best practice
Campaigning - for legal and policy reform to better protect whistleblowers
Burcak joined Protect in July 2019 as an adviser after graduating from Queen Mary University, London, with a first class honours in law. She has had previous experience of advising through her three years as part of the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre.