I was watching the BBC Panorama programme revealing the dreadful abuse suffered by elderly residents of private care homes, though I had to stop watching so I didn’t get to see whether the private provision dimension was explored. There were obvious similarities to the scandal of the treatment in Ireland’s privately run crèches last year.
It struck me while watching it that perhaps there is something pernicious about the celebrated figure of the whistleblower.
It is not that there is anything wrong with the necessary act of blowing the whistle. People who do this often put their livelihoods and reputation at risk, for no personal gain. They should be celebrated for this and supported by the public.
It is rather the assumption that seems to underlie the notion of the whistleblower. It is as if they are a necessary safety valve for an equally necessary organisational culture of hierarchy and obedience, the exception that proves the rule.
Whistleblowers would by and large be unnecessary in organisations where each worker felt it their obligation and duty to confront their co-workers and supervisory bodies about abusive practices and things harmful to the people the organisation is supposed to serve, whether a particular group, such as children or elderly people or migrants, or the public as a whole.
In organisations run for profit, this sense of obligation seems largely impossible to me, since the people being served are the owners of the firm, who exercise a disciplinary power over the employee: open your mouth and put your job at risk. Particularly in the area of genuinely public services, workers ought to see raising concerns about abuses and shortcomings as part of their job.
This, however, would have to be rooted in a broader democratic culture at a societal level, where people are not afraid to speak up for their rights and the rights of others. But it is precisely this kind of culture that privatisation and outsourcing of public services serves to militate against. In workplaces, heightened metriculation and surveillance, and an organisational culture that seeks to render every employee the solitary entrepreneur of their own fortunes, mean that solidarity among workers gets undermined, and empathy for others systematically treated as a weakness. In this context, the figure of the potential whistleblower as solitary hero, protected by legislation or regulation, can provide anti-democratic structures with a potent alibi.