Confidentiality and whistleblowers

Published as "From the national president" in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), June 1996, pp. 1-2.

Brian Martin

Recently I was contacted by some members of WBA with concerns about confidentiality of statements made and documents given to other members. There are some serious issues here. I present here my own views in order to encourage discussion. I expect that others will have different perspectives and experiences.

When we are discussing issues and cases with others, often there are things we would not want to be widely known. This can be when talking with someone over the phone, when discussing points at a meeting of whistleblowers or when giving or receiving documents. It is convenient to distinguish between giving information and receiving it.

Giving information

If you have information that you want to remain truly confidential, my advice would be not to tell anyone else at all. There are no guarantees otherwise. If you talk on the telephone, it is possible (though in most cases quite unlikely) that it is tapped. If you talk at a meeting of people, it is possible that one of the others may be an informer. If you give documents to someone, it is possible that they will show them to someone else or that they'll be stolen. Even ABC journalists have had their offices raided by police in order to find the identity of their sources.

Whenever we communicate with others, we put a certain amount of trust in the others to deal with the information in an appropriate way. We have to use our judgment in this. In my view, most people are trustworthy most of the time, but we can never be sure.

The use of surveillance and informers is a serious matter, but often the power and insight of organisations that spy is overrated. Studies of files in so-called "intelligence agencies" show they are filled with wrong and misinterpreted information. There are dangers from surveillance, but even more debilitating can be a constant fear of being spied upon.

Violations of confidentiality are more likely to occur due to ill-judged actions made with the best of intentions, or just simple slackness. For example, someone receiving a confidential document might show it to a spouse or good friend only to find that the information is passed on to others. Or the document might simply be left on a shelf where others happen to see it.

We might like to think that whistleblowers, especially members of Whistleblowers Australia, are especially trustworthy, but there are no guarantees. If you're worried about whether someone can be trusted, find out from others how that person dealt with other cases.

Whistleblowers Australia is made up of volunteers. We have no resources or mandate to investigate people to see if they are bona fide whistleblowers. Members and others who attend meetings have to use their judgment about what they say to others. If in doubt, seek advice by talking to individuals first.

Generally, if whistleblowers have information that is relevant to the public interest, then the more people who know about it, the better. That's why media coverage about corruption is so powerful and so detested by politicians, top bureaucrats and the like. Rather than becoming preoccupied with secrecy and confidentiality, in my view the aim should be more on getting information to people who need to know about it - which often means the general public.

Receiving information

How should one deal with information received from someone else? There are a host of considerations to be taken into account. Probably we could learn a lot from investigative journalists. Rather than making general recommendations, here I'll describe the way I proceed, simply as an example of one approach to the topic.

Since the late 1970s people have been giving me information about suppression off dissent. Sometimes I receive a verbal account, sometimes a letter and sometimes documents, from a page to a big pile. If the documents have already been published - such as in a newspaper - then issues of confidentiality seldom arise.

  • Sometimes a person gives me material just so I will know about it, without any wish that anything be done. In such cases I simply read the documents to gain insight into what's going on and then file them away, or return them if requested.
  • Sometimes a person wants advice on how to proceed. I try to oblige and then file or return any documents.
  • Sometimes a person is willing for their case to be written up. Sometimes I suggest they contact a journalist or, with permission, pass their materials to a journalist. Other times I write up the case myself, often as part of a longer article. In working on an article, I seldom rely on verbal accounts alone; documents are essential.

First I write a draft and send it to the person concerned. In the case of an article mentioning several cases, I send the draft to all those mentioned who might be worried about how I've expressed matters. This isn't just a matter of courtesy - I want what I write to be as accurate as possible.

Usually I put a statement to the draft saying, for example, "Draft only. Not for quotation or distribution, please." If there are a lot of changes to be made, I may circulate a second draft. Only after I'm confident that the writing is accurate will I send it to a newspaper, magazine or book publisher.

Sometimes it's useful to send a draft to people on the "other side", namely those allegedly suppressing dissent. Before doing this, I always check with anyone who might be hurt by doing this.

Occasionally I think it would be useful to pass documents to someone else. Before doing this, I ask permission from the person who gave me the documents, at least if I think there is any reason to worry. If the person concerned has been giving copies to lots of people, then I'm less likely to worry.

Over the years, as I've gained experience, I think I've improved my ability to make judgments about how to deal with information. But no one can be perfect, since it's impossible to be sure what's going on or how people will react. Sometimes I make mistakes. I try to be careful, but on the other hand it's possible to be too careful. To get something published, at some point it's necessary to go with what's as accurate as possible up to that point. Otherwise I'd be waiting forever for perfection.

I'm interested in hearing what others think about these issues. Should WBA have a policy on confidentiality? Should we produce a leaflet about it, to give to new members? If so, what should it say? Issues of confidentiality, openness and the like will be especially important at the conference in Melbourne, where there will be lots of whistleblowers, lots of people who aren't whistleblowers but who are sympathetic, a number of journalists and probably some people who are unsympathetic. It will be a great opportunity to share experiences and insights. My advice would be to be open about what you are willing for anyone to hear and to provide confidential material only to those you have good reason to trust.

Good reading from Senate committees

If you're in the mood for reading about whistleblowing, I recommend the two recent Senate reports. They are available from AGPS (government) bookshops. As well, a limited number of copies are available at no cost. Simply ring Elton Humphrey at Parliament House in Canberra (06-277 3005) and ask for them to be sent to you, or write (Elton Humphrey, Department of the Senate, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600). The reports are:

* In the Public Interest, Report of the Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing, August 1994;

* The Public Interest Revisited, Report of the Senate Select Committee on Unresolved Whistleblower Cases, October 1995.

If reading these isn't enough, you can ask for copies of all the submissions made to the two enquiries. Quite a number of our members made submissions to these inquiries and are featured in the reports. To me, the report on unresolved whistleblower cases seemed to provide more than enough evidence to show that the official channels almost never work. Some of the responses and non-responses of the official bodies are truly amazing.


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