This is what whistleblowing looks like

January 12 2024

Why has no-one called  the subpostmasters whistleblowers?

My GRIP article here –

The victims of the UK Post Office scandal are whistleblowers – and should be recognised as such

The full article is below –

The UK Post Office subpostmasters have been called many things over the years:

  • thieves, crooks and fraudsters (often garnished with appalling racial epithets) by Post Office investigators and managers;
  • victims by those campaigning for them, including MPs;
  • heroes by some; and
  • the “skint little people” by the dramatist, Gwyneth Hughes, telling their story in the recent TV drama.

But the one thing they have not been called, surprisingly because this is what they indubitably were, is “whistleblowers”.

Why has no one called them this? They did not call themselves that. They did not send an email marked “Whistleblowing”. They did not refer to any internal policy or press a button on the corporate website marked “Making a Whistleblowing Report” (even assuming the Post Office had such a procedure).

They weren’t even Post Office employees. But the substance of what they did was to blow the whistle on a flawed accounting system. And, subsequently, on flawed, badly understood contracts (see the March 2019 Bates Common Issues judgment) and the behavior of its internal investigators and lawyers, whose conduct is currently being reviewed by the Williams Inquiry.

It is all too easy for organisations, focused on drafting whistleblowing procedures, to forget what whistleblowing is for.

It is the substance of the message which is what makes something a whistleblowing. Not the how of its communication or the status of the messenger. If someone is telling you that something is – or may be – wrong, then rather than worry about how to categorize them, or what legal arguments you can use to justify ignoring them, you need to listen, investigate and not go after the messenger.

It is the difference between taking a “tick-the-box / does this fit the procedure?” approach and understanding what the point of whistleblowing is and why it matters.

The Post Office did not treat the subpostmasters as whistleblowers because this would have required it to accept that there was something which needed investigating – and doing so properly. It would also have made it impossible for it to demand the money it wanted. But at some more fundamental level it simply did not recognise that this was what was happening.

This is not surprising. It is all too easy for organizations, focused on drafting whistleblowing or, as they are often now called, “Speak Up” procedures, on understanding the finer points of the latest EU Whistleblowing Directive, if they have operations within the EU, or regulatory requirements or the precise remit of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 to forget what whistleblowing is for.

It is not meant to be an intellectual legal categorization exercise for employment lawyers or HR personnel. Too often it devolves into an assessment of whether an individual has brought themselves within scope of the relevant law and what legal arguments might be used against them to protect the organization from an employment claim and the payment of damages.

Nor is it meant to be another process or procedure to be proudly displayed to one’s regulator or talked about in the Annual Report, a token of how “transparent” and “compliant” the organisation likes to present itself as being.

One of the hardest things for organizations – especially large ones – to do is see what is really going on in their organization. Partly it is because there is so much information and, paradoxically, despite its quantity it can too often be silo’ed. But partly it is because the information collected or focused on is about what is going well: profits made, targets met, new customers, new contracts etc …

But what you also need to know is what is not going well: complaints, demands for information from regulators or other outside bodies, legal actions, internal investigations, disciplinaries, grievances, reasons for departures, system problems, faults, monitoring reports, whistleblowing claims and so on. All of these are signs that the organization’s health is not what it should be.

Whistleblowing reports do not always come neatly packaged as such. The person raising an issue may not even realise that that is what they are doing. They may only have part of the picture, or get some of it wrong, or not understand the implications. Or miss out key facts which can only be teased out when they are spoken to. They may do so for self-interested reasons.

But none of that really matters. A concern raised – in whatever context – is a warning that something is or may be going wrong. It is a chance to look at it properly before it becomes a crisis to be managed. It is something to be welcomed because it tells you something that you might not otherwise have spotted. Or it helps you connect seemingly random bits of information and understand what that tells you.

Who tells you and what their motives may be are less important than what they are telling you, certainly until you have investigated and established the facts in a robust and reliable manner.

What organizations need is the skill to realize that they are being given clues needing proper investigation. And the sense to realise that this – proper investigation and resolution of the concerns raised – is the point of having all these procedures, processes, policies, training, Whistleblowing Champions and the rest.

Those subpostmasters were whistleblowers. It is a mark of how poorly understood the importance and purpose of whistleblowing is that it has taken two decades after the first whistleblowing legislation, passed at around the same time the Horizon scandal started, ironically enough, for their concerns to start being properly understood and addressed.


Photo: author’s own.

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