What’s the meaning of whistleblowing?

Review of C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power (Cornell University Press, 2001), published in The Whistle (newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 28, January 2002, pp. 6-7.


Reviewed by Brian Martin

Go to

Brian Martin's book reviews

Suppression of dissent website

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website

"Frank Whitbread is a chemist who worked for a state environmental protection agency. Several times his boss had refused to allow him to testify before a state panel investigating the agency’s failure to test the well water of subdivisions located near sites where hazardous materials had been dumped. Eventually he called up a state senator and told him his story. Shortly thereafter Frank was fired. The state civil service commission made his agency take him back, but he was given no work to do and an office that was once a janitor’s closet." (p. 75).

Sound familiar? Frank speaks out in the public interest and suffers fierce reprisals from his employer.

But what does it all really mean? In particular, what does it mean for the whistleblower? C. Fred Alford tackles this vital question in his stimulating new book Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power (Cornell University Press, 2001).

Alford is sceptical of the heroic accounts in which the courageous employee brings a corrupt organisation to account, benefiting society and receiving society’s gratitude. Instead, he has a much darker, more pessimistic message. Nearly all whistleblowers are destroyed. They lose their jobs, their careers, their houses, their friends, their families. But that is not the worst part. Most catastrophically, whistleblowers lose their trust in people and justice.

Alford is a political scientist at the University of Maryland. To research whistleblowing, he talked to lots of whistleblowers, attended whistleblower support groups and studied writings on whistleblowing. The stories he tells about individual whistleblowers are the same sorts of stories that have been told many times before. But Alford brings to this material a different perspective, offering new insights. In particular, he uses the whistleblower experience to provide insights into ethics and politics.

For whistleblowers, the book has passages that will be illuminating but also agonising. In telling their stories, over and over, whistleblowers typically go through a sequence of events. This, Alford thinks, serves as a substitute for telling a story that has an ending and a real meaning. The problem is that whistleblowers don’t want to recognise the underlying truth, which is that there is no justice in the world and that organisations operate on the basis of power, not morality. If they recognise this truth, then their own actions become pointless. What is the use of behaving morally in a world without justice? Even when whistleblowers are later vindicated, it doesn’t really help. As Alford asks, "What is the satisfaction in being right if as a consequence one has to give up everything one believed in?" (p. 51).

When whistleblowers lose their trust in people and organisations, they enter a new sphere of meaning, or perhaps lack of meaning. "For some, the earth moves when they discover that people in authority routinely lie and that those who work for them routinely cover up. Once one knows this, or rather once one feels this knowledge in one’s bones, one lives in a new world. Some people remain aliens in the new world forever. Maybe they like it that way. Maybe they don’t have a choice." (p. 52).

If whistleblowing results in a loss of meaning, then one response is to find alternative sources of meaning. The opposite to despair is paranoia, in which everything that occurs has meaning, because it is seen as part of a giant plot, with the whistleblower at the centre. Alford says that "Paranoia is a defense against loss of meaning" (p. 54).

Many others have described the devastating reprisals on whistleblowers, including ostracism, reprimands, forced transfers, referral to psychiatrists, assignment to menial duties, dismissal and blacklisting. Alford covers this ground well, but what is outstanding is his account of the psychological consequences of whistleblowing, especially loss of meaning. He draws attention to what is seldom said in public because it is unpalatable. He says that most whistleblowers would not do it again. He describes the inner psychological struggles of whistleblowers, in particular the feeling that they had no choice but to speak out. He describes their stories as "narratives stuck in static time" (p. 44). He tells about their difficulty in moving on in their lives, because meaning has left their life and telling the sequences of events provides a semblance of meaning. In short, Alford gives not the usual inspiring picture of heroic, public-spirited employees but a depressing picture of devastated individuals whose careers and meaning systems have been destroyed. The title of the book is Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, and "broken lives" sums up what happens to most whistleblowers.

The other part of the subtitle refers to organisational power, and here too Alford provides gloomy insights. The organisation responds to whistleblowers with implacable hostility.

Jennifer Long of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) testified to Congress about abuses perpetrated by her employer. "On Monday when she returned to work, said Long, every single manager was in her face with the same refrain: ‘You’re not a team player’.

"The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, William Roth, had warned the IRS not to retaliate against Long, and a year later he warned the commissioner in follow-up hearings. Two days later, on April 15, the Houston office of the IRS, where Long worked, fired her, after spending a year documenting thirty-three alleged shortcomings, including the failure to write neatly in her appointment book." (pp. 125-126).

Senator Roth as well as the new commissioner of the IRS were furious and moved to protect Long and punish her supervisors. Alford notes that "her supervisors must have known that they were risking their jobs to take hers. In effect, they were committing career suicide. They just couldn’t stand it. They or she had to go, and this is one of the rare cases in which it was they, at least for now" (p. 126).

Alford says that "The whistleblower is a political actor in a nonpolitical world." (p. 97). By this he means that the whistleblower acts on the basis of values within an organisation where values have no role. Within the organisation, the main rule is to do what the boss wants. Anyone who imports values into the organisation from the outside, such as public safety, fairness or honesty, is a threat to the line of command and must be expelled.

Because of the unremitting hostility of bosses to whistleblowers, laws do little to help, since ways are easily found of getting around them. In th US, there are hundreds of laws protecting whistleblowers, but they are little help. "At a conference on the legal protection of whistleblowers, every lawyer who spoke agreed that the laws do not work very well and that new laws rarely help." (p. 108). Organisations have much more money and much more time: $100,000 and ten years to run a case is commonplace. Alford says that the law makes the "autonomous ethical individual" expendable (p. 113).

Alford tackles the issue of organisational power from several angles. In a chapter titled "Organized thoughtlessness," he diagnoses the bureaucratic organisation as a place where no one is supposed to think for themselves. This can be called the "rule of the living dead, those who no longer exist as actors [people with willpower] because they can no longer bear to think about what they are doing. More than a few whistleblowers talked about their bosses and co-workers as dead, or zombies. ‘Sometimes they just don’t seem human,’ said one whistleblower of his co-workers. ‘I think people must kill a part of themselves to remain part of the system’." (p. 119).

In the final chapter, "The political theory of sacrifice," Alford gives another gloomy perspective on organisational power. He compares the expulsion and degradation of the whistleblower with ritual sacrifice, which is a way of cleansing a group by symbolically putting all its sins on to a single individual, the scapegoat. Alford uses this idea, but with a twist. He says that sacrifice of the whistleblower "serves to rechannel destructive individual morality that might result in the breakdown of organizational control and hierarchy. Sacrifice is mobilized against thought in the name of organizational autarky [self-sufficiency]" (p. 128). The organisation is a transgressor, but that is accepted. It is the moral employee who is a threat to the organisation and who must be seen to be destroyed.

George Orwell’s novel 1984 describes a totalitarian society in which individuality is extinguished, if necessary by torture. Alford finds analogies between the treatment of Winston Smith, protagonist of 1984, and the typical treatment of whistleblowers.

Although Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power has many insights for whistleblowers, much of it has a more intellectual purpose. Alford draws on the whistleblower experience in order to comment on bodies of social theory. As well as dealing with theories of organisation, as described above, he develops an explanation of whistleblower ethics around the idea of "narcissism moralised," and analyses this in relation to a number of philosophical theories of ethics. The book draws on prominent social theorists including Hannah Arendt, Zygmunt Bauman and Michel Foucault. Much of this will be far from easy reading for anyone not already familiar with the work of such thinkers. There are lots of sophisticated ideas from narratology, ethics and organisational theory.

Alford performs a useful task in exposing the depressing real-life experiences of whistleblowers and the sordid reality behind heroic stories of virtuous employees winning against evil employers. However, he idealises whistleblowers in his own way, by focussing on the most moral and justified individuals. He does not fully address the phenomenon of the inadvertent whistleblower who speaks out without realising the likely consequences. He filters out diverse types of individuals who contact whistleblower groups, including those whose claims are dubious, those who speak out to protect themselves, those who blow the whistle anonymously and those who are criminals seeking the more prestigious label of whistleblower. He also neglects the experienced organisational radical who knows exactly how the system operates and who speaks out with full awareness and only after suitable preparation. It is only by excluding many types of behaviour that Alford can come up with a standard picture of the conscientious employee whose illusions about justice in the world are destroyed.

Anyone looking for advice or solutions will be disappointed. There are no alternatives presented in the book and no strategies for change, just analysis of the problem.

Another limitation is that Alford does not look outside the US for his examples and insights. William De Maria’s book Deadly Disclosures (Wakefield Press, 1999) provides an equally gloomy picture of whistleblowing. More importantly, Alford sticks entirely to the cases of a lone whistleblower against a powerful organisation and thus misses the insights available by studying collective struggle. Deena Weinstein in Bureaucratic Opposition (Pergamon, 1979) analyses bureaucratic organisations as analogous to authoritarian political systems. Alford comes close to this in his mentions of Orwell’s 1984. But as well as individual opposition, it is possible to have group opposition, such as by trade unions, action groups and social movements. An individual whistleblower can be expelled but when a group mounts a challenge, the result is a different form of political struggle in the organisation.

Whistleblowers Australia could be seen as way of fostering collective opposition, of providing assistance and contacts so that a more powerful challenge can be mounted to transgressing organisations. Through links with media, trade unions, community groups, politicians and others, there is an increased chance of being effective. The lone whistleblower still usually suffers in vain, but as ever more people understand the dynamics of organisations, there will be fewer sacrificial victims &endash; or at least that is the hope of groups such as WBA. Alford captures an important truth, but it is not the full story.

So read Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power and weep for lost innocence, but do not give up yet. The whistleblowing experience may destroy illusions about justice in the world, but there remain other ways to create meaning, including collective social action.