The globalization of whistleblowing

Published in Daniel Broudy, Jeffery Klaehn and James Winter (eds.), News from Somewhere: A Reader in Communication & Challenges to Globalization (Eugene, OR: Wayzgoose Press, 2015), pp. 231-239
Brian Martin


In the late 1970s, I collected evidence that several environmental scientists and teachers had come under attack, for example being censored, denied tenure or dismissed. In those days, environmentalism was considered quite radical. My assessment was that these researchers and teachers were seen as threatening to the status quo. I called the phenomenon of attacking dissidents “suppression of dissent.”[1]

Not long before this, the first important writings about whistle-blowing appeared in the US.[2] A typical whistleblower is an employee who speaks up in the public interest, typically about fraud, abuse of process, or hazards to the public. Whistle-blowers frequently suffer reprisals, including petty harassment, ostracism, reprimands, assignment to onerous or to trivial duties, referral to psychiatrists, compulsory transfers, demotion, dismissal, and blacklisting. Bosses are usually responsible for reprisals, but co-workers sometimes join in, due either to fear of being targeted themselves or to a wish to ingratiate themselves with management.

For the whistleblower, this sounds pretty bad, and it is. Many whistleblowers suffer badly, with damaging effects on their careers, finances, health, and relationships. Many whistleblowers are conscientious employees who make reports, believing that problems will be investigated and rectified. Instead, they are shocked to their core when they are treated as the source of the problem. The result is that they can lose their faith in society, specifically their faith in systems ostensibly designed to supply justice.[3]

The phenomenon of group members speaking out in the public interest has been occurring as long as groups and abuses have existed. However, the label “whistleblower” only gained currency beginning in the 1970s. Before then, some people might have known about it but had no name for it – as in the cases of other things such as sexual harassment, bullying, and nonviolent resistance.

Few whistleblower stories are documented. Probably most are known only to the whistleblower and relatively few co-workers. The cases reported in the media are just the tip of a large iceberg. Because relatively few cases are revealed to wider audiences, it is impossible to catalog a full history of whistleblowing. All that can be done is to extrapolate from what is known.

After I started writing about the suppression of dissent, people started contacting me to tell me about their own situations, often asking my advice. In this way, I heard about ever more cases, including different types. Prominent whistleblowers and dissidents are frequently contacted by others who have similar experiences.

For example, Clyde Manwell was Professor of Zoology at the University of Adelaide in the early 1970s. After he and his wife Ann Baker spoke out about the possible risks of spraying pesticides, there was an attempt to dismiss him from his tenured position, eventually involving inquiries, court cases, and student protests. As a result of the publicity, he was contacted by dozens of scientists and scholars recounting similar problems. Later, Clyde, Ann and I, along with another dissident, Cedric Pugh, edited a book about the suppression of dissent.[4]”

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