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Whistleblowing, abuses of power and faithful justice

Whistleblowing, abuses of power and faithful justice.

One of the lesser known Acts of Parliament in the UK is the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) which was introduced as a private members bill back in 1998. The intention of this Act was to protect those who feel it necessary to become “whistleblowers” thus drawing the public’s attention to abuses of power or inappropriate behaviour within organisations. In the light of a series of public scandals over the last few weeks and months in the UK there is a call to revisit this bill to debate whether it is “fit for purpose”. In other words, can it actually perform the function of protecting those who must “blow the whistle” on other colleagues? Recent scandals include cases within the National Health Service where warnings that unnecessary deaths within certain hospitals were being caused by an over-concentration upon targets and cost-cutting at the expense of patient care. Another high profile case is of a well known school in Manchester where it has come to light that a number of the tutors were taking advantage of young female pupils over a considerable length of time. A whole culture of abuse appears to have existed creating a distorted and damaging environment for those who were the victims of this.

From the outside of these situations one finds it hard to understand how and why they have been allowed to continue unreported and unchecked for so long. As with the case of the TV personality Jimmy Savile whose record of abuse has only come to light since his death, one cannot but ask how someone could get away with this for so long, and why none of his victims blew the whistle at the time. But, of course, the answer is both simple and horrifying. It is all about power. Whatever the situation in question, it is about those with power using and abusing it to guarantee the silence of the victims. As one report on the NHS scandal said, whistleblowers are either ignored, intimidated or bullied. The whistleblower becomes the one who is at fault by virtue of drawing attention to a context which, if openly exposed, would disturb the status quo and demand action from a higher authority. Much easier for those in power to “keep the lid on the situation” and either tell the objectors to keep quiet, or to sack them, or encourage them to walk away from the situation of their own volition.

If there are settings where faith-based concepts of justice have something to say to the real world, then this is surely one of them. How can those who are denied a voice be represented by others when it is dangerous for them to challenge existing power structures? All of us are implicated, involved and caught up in areas of public and private life where we know things are not as they should be. When is it right to speak out and what can be achieved by doing so? How serious do things need to be before that stage is reached? These are questions both of morality but also of fine judgement. Presumably the purpose of having an Act of Parliament which attempts to address these questions is that it should make it easier for whistleblowers to draw public attention to abuses of power. But how much can be achieved by legislation or governance procedures? This is a critical question which Christians must address. The obvious answer is that such legal processes and governance structures are necessary but not sufficient to prevent the abuses of power. We need them, but they will never be enough in themselves to tackle either the symptoms or the root causes of abuse. They are an organizational response to what are deeply human failings from which none of us are immune. I am reminded of a telling phrase from the older Anglican liturgy which seems peculiarly appropriate to this issue, and indeed, for the season of Lent: “thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts”. So what is it then that we ask God to do in response to this awareness? “Shut not thy merciful ears to our prayers, but spare us Lord most Holy, O God most mighty”. All a bit heavy and a bit dated perhaps, but the phrase about “shutting thy ears” is surely a telling one. When whistleblowers attempt to bring secrets into the light, the temptation is that it is easier and less disturbing to “shut our ears” to what they are saying. Rules and structures cannot provide any guarantee that someone will listen, it has to be a response of faith and fidelity to a deeper truth. The victims keep quiet because they fear no one will listen to them let alone believe them or take them seriously. Justice requires of us that we keep our ears and our eyes open.

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John Reader is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in the Diocese of Oxford and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation (University of Chester. UK). His first degree was from Oxford (Philosophy and Theology); then an M.Phil from Manchester University, and finally a Ph.D from the University of Wales, Bangor on “The Problem of Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. He has taught on a number of courses and been Director of Pastoral Theology at an Anglican theological college. His books include Local Theology (SPCK); Blurred Encounters (Aureus); Reconstructing Practical Theology (Ashgate) and Encountering the New Theological Space co-edited with Chris Baker (Ashgate). He is also a visiting scholar at OxCEPT based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.