Whistleblowers provide an antidote to corruption and abuse of
power. But they are often reviled, says Alison Taylor, and suffer a
fate worse than those they bring to justice.
As a consultant cardiologist at Leeds Infirmary pointed out
recently in The Times, in the wake of the Kennedy report
on the Bristol Royal Infirmary scandal, the term whistleblower
carries derogatory connotations and should be rendered
The 2000 edition of the Oxford University Press thesaurus lists
whistleblower alongside sneak, informer, tell-tale, grass, snitch:
a deliberate troublemaker with highly dubious motives. While
whistleblowers might personally feel virtuous for allowing
conscience to triumph over expediency, fear or indoctrination,
others judge them contemptible spoilsports deserving, at the very
least, of the cold shoulder.
Outer darkness is, however, their more usual fate. Dr Stephen
Bolsin, the anaesthetist who triggered the Bristol inquiry, told
that he had made himself unemployable in the NHS, and was forced to
move to Australia. It is ironic in the extreme that only in the
country to which Britain once transported its worst criminals is
the medical establishment sufficiently enlightened to welcome him.
He never received praise from any official body in Britain, and
garnered only a grudging tribute from the Kennedy inquiry, which
merely said he had been “right”. Bolsin told The Times
that the head of the General Medical Council had, in confidence,
praised him, but instructed him “to keep it secret because it could
jeopardise his position”. Arguably, with that disclosure, Bolsin
has now also snitched on the head of the GMC.
The recently convicted Lord Archer is a casualty of
whistleblowing. His one-time friend Ted Francis revealed details of
the false alibi they concocted for Archer’s very profitable libel
action against the Daily Star because, Francis said, he
could not allow someone of Archer’s dubious moral character to
stand for election as mayor of London.
Long before Francis’s attack of conscience, however, someone
else had tried to be the sun to Archer’s Icarus-like flight in the
realms of fame and fortune. For 10 years, Baroness Nicholson, MEP
for the south east region, has been questioning the whereabouts of
funds Archer raised for Kurdish refugees, but, as she wrote in
The Times last month: “Unfortunately, in the days when he
was being hailed as a munificent benefactor and fundraiser, the
leading politicians and opinion-formers had no interest in my
concern. Only now, following his downfall, is my case being taken
seriously” (the Metropolitan Police have launched a full-scale
There is, as usual, a deeply unpleasant subtext to this story:
it is inconceivable that none of those leading politicians and
opinion-formers ever felt uneasy about Archer and his activities,
but no one, Baroness Nicholson excepted, appears to have had the
courage to comment.
It was left to someone far more lowly, someone expendable, to do
the dirty work, for which Francis reaped the reward of finding
himself with Archer in the Old Bailey dock. Similarly, in Gwynedd,
several people much higher than myself in the council’s hierarchy
knew that children in care were gravely at risk, but preferred not
to sacrifice themselves.
The Old Bailey jury acquitted Francis of all charges. The North
Wales tribunal report into the abuse of children in care
“acquitted” me, but that did not deter publication, in a journal
owned by a former senior politician, of an article about me so
contentious that I have begun libel proceedings. Reactions to
whistleblowers veer between extremes, and seem very much to depend
on the social position of the onlooker.
The awards I received all came from the general public, as did
support for me between my dismissal and the tribunal. But in the
eyes of the powerful, people who show themselves to have no stomach
for corruption are a serious menace. Bolsin was told he had made
himself unemployable: in other words, he, not those whose conduct
he found unacceptable, must bear sole blame for his troubles, which
says much about the conflicting attitudes to morality and probity
that bedevil Britain today. In one sense, whistleblowers are a
necessary evil to ensure society’s health: an occasional dose of
unpleasant purgative that flushes out the toxins.
If the act of whistleblowing is ultimately a virtue, then there
is much truth in the old saying that virtue’s only reward is
itself, for whistleblowers lose everything apart from their
personal integrity. I managed to carve out a new career as a
writer, to rebuild some financial stability after coming close to
destitution, but my world feels very fragile, very vulnerable to
attack, and I know that my reputation – that most important social
asset – is already permanently tarnished.
As well, I am first in the firing line for those wishing to
argue that many abuse allegations are false and malicious. I
expected the North Wales tribunal report would draw a line under
the worst period of my life, but it seems the rest of my days will
be dogged by that act of whistleblowing. I hope Dr Bolsin, and
those who are sure to follow him, fare better.
Alison Taylor is a novelist and the winner of the 1996
Commuity Care Readers’ Award.