The whistleblower’s moral dilemma By Shashi Tharoor

Whistle blower is an evocative word; it immediately conjures up an image of a stern football referee blowing the whistle on some infraction, and that’s precisely what a whistleblower does. He (or she) is a figure of rectitude, someone who has witnessed wrongdoing from the inside and cannot abide it. Whistleblowers are the bane of those who break laws and rules: since most of the crimes they reveal are committed in secret, their testimony is indispensable to uncovering them.

The moral dilemma that confronts a whistle blower is that of his own complicity:

  • As an insider in the organisation where he finds a wrong being committed, he has a choice between staying loyal or blowing the whistle.
  • Sometimes whistleblowers have been involved in the wrongs they reveal but reach a point when they cannot take any more.
  • Sometimes their accidental or unauthorised discovery of a crime they were no part of, and of which they disapprove, makes them whistleblowers.

There are few things that can stop a sincerely motivated whistle blower.

  • Governments have the Official Secrets Act or the equivalent which prohibit employees from revealing secret information they may come across in the course of their work.
  • Some companies, especially large corporations, have a non-disparagement clause in their employment contracts to discourage whistleblowing.
  • But these only deter the timid, the intimidated or those with inactive consciences (who tell themselves they need the salary or the job more than the world needs to know about their boss’ illegal activities.)
  • Especially with the passage of whistleblower protection laws in most democracies, including ours, such considerations have rarely prevented whistleblowing.


  • It was a whistleblower listening in on an official phone call to take notes, who revealed President Trump’s misuse of his power for his personal political ends.
  • An Indian whistleblower revealed the fudging of pharmaceutical research data in Ranbaxy, practically destroying the company.

Background :

  • The phrase is said to have been invented by American civic activist Ralph Nader, but etymologists say it goes back to the 19th century and he should only be credited with bringing it into modern popular use.
  • The word was linked to the conduct of US and British police and law enforcement officials in the 19th century who used a whistle to warn a fugitive, alert the public or summon additional police.
  • The usage of the word has also evolved over time. An 1883 American newspaper story called a policeman who used his whistle to alert citizens about a riot a whistle blower (two words). Eight decades later, the two-word phrase had become a single hyphenated word, whistleblower. With its popularisation by Nader and the American media in the 1960s as a respectable term for people who revealed wrongdoing, it became the compound word whistleblower.

How it works ?

  • A whistleblower can choose to blow the whistle by revealing information or allegations either internally or externally.
  • Internally, a whistleblower can bring the wrongdoing he discovers to the attention of senior people within the same organisation who he believes are not complicit.
  • Sometimes corporations or government departments may have an officer assigned to receive internal whistleblower complaints.
  • Alternatively, a whistleblower can bring allegations to light by contacting an outsider – often the media but also, in government, another official, or if a straightforward crime is involved, police or law enforcement.

Risks Involved :

  • Whistleblowing is not a risk-free activity: it can cost you your job, and if your identity is revealed to the accused, result in reprisal actions against you and punitive retaliation: lawsuits, criminal charges, social stigma, and job termination are all possible consequences.
  • This would almost certainly be the case in most private companies; in government, a whistleblower is protected by law, but no private company is going to retain an employee, however moral, who has betrayed a confidence and lost his employer’s trust.
  • From a company’s point of view whistleblowing is unethical for breaching confidentiality, especially in businesses that handle sensitive client or patient information.
  • This is why most private company employees keep their head down when they discover their employer is breaking the law; at best, if their consciences are affronted, they set about looking for another job.
  • A morally upright whistleblower, therefore, is a rarity, and for that reason must be hailed as a hero.

Via HT.

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