That is the question facing many who encounter malpractice in the workplace or elsewhere – whether to blow the whistle on misdemeanours and predictably open a can of worms in the process, or to mind their own business and leave it to someone else.
The issue is hugely topical at the moment, notably in America where Edward Snowden is variously regarded as a hero or a traitor. In revealing to the world the disturbing extent of US intrusion upon the affairs of friend and foe alike, he aspired to tell the truth to his fellow citizens of what is being done in their name. A private person behaving like the US spymasters might reasonably be suspected of raging paranoia. It seems that the safeguards of the internet are being systematically undermined together with personal privacy. And lest the finger be pointed too obviously elsewhere, we might care to imagine the involvement nearer home of Britain’s GCHQ. The alarming potential for misuse of information and ultimately for the incursion of organised crime is all too obvious.
Accused of jeopardising national security, Snowden has sought refuge across the world hoping to avoid repatriation to his native land where retribution implacably awaits. Retribution has certainly caught up with another American, Bradley Manning, who has recently been sentenced to a 35-year jail term for disclosing the excesses of the US military. He was charged with the theft of government property and (with supreme irony) espionage. Meanwhile Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has taken refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, fearful of being extradited to Sweden for alleged sexual offences and thence to the USA to face criminal proceedings for the publication of sensitive material. Assange claims to be flying the flag of investigative journalism, challenging censorship and asserting the freedom of the press.
It seems that a balance has to be struck between national security and freedom of information. Is a country’s safety therefore inextricably intertwined with clandestine skulduggery? W S Gilbert clearly thought so. As long ago as 1880 he penned the following lines for the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance:
But many a king on a first-class throne,
If he wants to call his crown his own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More dirty work than ever I do.
If this is the harsh reality, are there limits to what a civilised society might tacitly accept?
It is a short step from king to politician, from captain of industry or commerce to an excess of power at any level in business, family or social life. Or in the Church. Is all power potentially dangerous? Lord Acton famously declared that power tends to corruption and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Few would openly condone mindless obedience to orders (remember Nuremberg) or connivance in wrongdoing or neglect (as frequently reported in scandals public and private). So how are we to speak truth to power as the need arises?
The problem is that whistle blowers are often not well regarded, especially when collateral damage results from their disclosures. Children are not encouraged to tell tales, and there is something rather sneaky in blowing the gaff on one’s peers or superiors. Loyalty is generally called into question along with breach of trust. Thus it takes considerable courage or foolhardiness to defy the odds and risk abuse, loss of employment or worse.
Yet situations will frequently arise in any walk of life when the person of conscience will feel driven to object. Perhaps he or she will take the whistle route, braving the consequences in the hope of bringing change. Alternatively they may choose to resign or walk away, refusing to be complicit but leaving affairs unaltered.
Can the Bible ease our moral dilemma? It seems that Scripture is fairly bursting with whistle blowers from the prophets to the apostles who told the truth as they saw it with frequently calamitous results for themselves. The Bible also speaks unequivocally of righteousness as something more than individual rectitude. And perhaps Jesus himself was the whistle blower par excellence, exposing corruption in the Temple, challenging conventional assumptions and calling the Jewish nation to account with reforming zeal.
It earned him a ghastly death on a Roman gibbet. Were his efforts misguided and foredoomed to failure? Evidently not, for soon a handful of his disciples were credited with turning the world upside down!
Frighteningly according to the Gospel writers this headstrong Jesus called on his followers to take up their cross in like manner. Defensively we are frequently inclined to interpret this as coping with illness or bearing disappointment. Conceivably something more proactive is intended. In our day for example we honour the sacrifice of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Can it be that whistle blowing is a task for the whole Church rather than for a clutch of bold activists?
Arguably so, but never in simplistic fashion I would suggest. As a rule whistle blowing poses insoluble dilemmas. Unintended consequences are liable to cause the best intentions to misfire, finally doing more harm than good. Corporately or individually we are obliged to agonize in search of sound judgement; but eventually the risk to act or to abstain must be taken in the clear knowledge that it could ultimately prove mistaken. Ducking the decision, however, is not a commendable option.