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Advice for whistleblowers

by Warwick Mansell

Whistleblowing – by which I mean of the sort that I encounter, when someone wanting to raise public interest concerns goes to the media with them – is a challenging business, in more ways than one.

Over the past 10 years or so, I must have been in contact with hundreds of people wanting to raise concerns about various goings-on in schools and education policymaking. Some of these bits of information then emerge into the relative sunlight of print: the diary column I wrote for the Guardian for five years, for example, was a magnet for tip-offs and whispers of “have you seen this?”, which led to stories. Others, including some quite large potential scoops, have not. So here I offer a few insights into some common factors which I think help to underpin a successful investigation. I’ve grouped them under three very rough headings.

1 Trust a journalist. But seriously…

The number one rule, I think, is the concept of trust. Very few investigations, in my experience, work without the whistleblower being prepared to work with the journalist towards the common aim: exposing a story of public interest which then helps in a process of accountability, often when there is a sense of frustration that official accountability will not work.

This has some follow-on implications. Sometimes, and of course for very understandable reasons, people are tempted to try to feed information to journalists which carries pretty well zero risk to themselves, in that it is always on a completely anonymous basis, such that the journalist never knows who the source is. This might possibly lead to stories, but it makes things much harder in terms of doing the business of standing up the story which then leads to publication. Given that the process of working with a journalist can be controlled very carefully to protect anonymity – see below – it’s a shame that some investigations stop here.

So sometimes, for example, I might get information from a completely anonymous email. This might say “look here” or “speak to people about this”, but there is no contact, no opportunity to talk, no documentary evidence and sometimes, not even a response to emailed questions back.

This makes investigation very difficult. Potential whistleblowers should know that in many or even most cases, the bit of information they are giving will be the best, or only, lead the journalist has. We won’t necessarily have other contacts to follow it up with – not because we’re lazy but because there are lots of organisations to investigate – and even if we do, starting cold with other contacts, rather than seeking more information from someone who is clearly concerned enough to highlight an initial piece of information, will often be an uphill battle. Investigations are also often time-consuming, so asking us to hunt around for more contacts is going to reduce the chance of success.

People sometimes suggest making a Freedom of Information request. These are often revealing, of course. But the process is, again, time-consuming and also subject to attempts by public bodies not to release information they don’t want to release. Much better to have sight of documentary evidence in the first place…

A very interesting but very hard-to-substantiate piece of information, then, without any chance for direct follow-up and without documentary evidence is a very long shot in terms of getting published. The main reason for that is the law: stories that run the risk of damaging someone’s reputation need to be substantiated, and without access to a source, substantiation is usually much more difficult.

2 Documentary evidence is always best

Most stories will not run without some written evidence, because being able to show something is true is the best defence in case a story is challenged legally. So keep those emails and documents!

Documents handed over without any chance to speak to the source are far from impossible to run, but for the reasons above, that lack of contact can make investigation harder, and thus the eventual running of the story less likely.

There are no absolute hard-and-fast rules. One of the biggest stories I and colleagues ran during my time at the Times Educational Supplement was to break the news of Labour’s huge school rebuilding plan: Building Schools for the Future. This stemmed from a long phone call I took from someone ringing through to the paper’s offices completely anonymously. After much work trying to establish that the very detailed contents of the call were indeed true, I fronted up the schools minister at the time, David Miliband, at Labour’s party conference with the information. In response came a phrase to gladden the heart of anyone in my trade: “How did you know that?” The story followed.

But, to repeat, this is the exception. Most published stories come from source and reporter building up trust and working together. The reassuring aspect to this is that it is possible to go cautiously with the investigative process so that sources are kept aware of next steps throughout, so that there are no surprises.

3 Gagging clauses

One final point: gagging clauses or confidentiality agreements, which people sign before leaving an organisation. I know that these are rife. There are public interest protections for whistleblowers who are raising important concerns, and I was told in 2014 that no-one had ever been successfully prosecuted in respect of breaking a gagging clause. Important factors in that were that public interest provision in law and the reputational risks that a taxpayer-funded organisation faces in being seen to taking legal action against someone raising public interest concerns. But I realise the challenges that this can present for anyone considering dealing with the media; again, the need is to go cautiously so that those public interest concerns get the airing they deserve.

Good luck, and I look forward to working with you!


About Education Uncovered

Education Uncovered is a new website offering exclusive news stories, irreverent and analytical blogging, first-person reportage, long read features and opinion and more.

We aim to put under the microscope the endless waves of reforms which have hit England’s schools in recent years. We will seek to hold policymakers and those with power to account for goings-on at ground level, as we dig around in the undergrowth of schools reform.

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