World’s largest whistleblowing project throws weight behind reforms

Less than 1% of whistleblowers end up going to the media, and only after trying internal or regulatory channels first according to a new report released this week.

Clean as a whistle: a five-step guide to better whistleblowing policy and practice in business and government’, the final key findings from a three-year Australian Research Council funded project supported by all Australian governments and leading business organisations has been presented at a symposium in Brisbane.

Project leader A J Brown from Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy was a member of the Commonwealth Government’s expert panel leading to new corporate sector whistleblowing laws, which began on 1 July 2019.

“Organisations and agencies already get the first chance to deal with issues, at least 97% of the time. Whistleblowers are only ever going to external official bodies like regulators or integrity agencies, about 16% of the time, and only going directly to them about 1% of the time,’’ Professor Brown said.

“This is far less external disclosure than we actually want or need, if we really expect corporate and government wrongdoing to be identified and properly addressed.”

At the symposium, ASIC released new regulatory guidance for all companies required to have detailed new whistleblowing policies in place from 1 January 2020, informed by the research.

“But after the Australian Federal Police raids on media organisations in June, the new private sector laws just highlight how out of date our protections for public sector whistleblowers have become,’’ Professor Brown said.

The report outlines respecting the role of disclosure to the media as one of five key steps crucial to achieving proper recognition of the role of whistleblowing in organisations and across society, in policy, law and practice.

“Legislating to re-establish media freedom to receive and report unimpeded on whistleblower information is absolutely vital — not only inherently in the public interest, but crucial to ensuring whistleblowers cannot be inappropriately hunted by seizing evidence from media organisations, defeating one of the main purposes of existing journalism shield laws.

“But as well, existing laws meant to protect whistleblowers who take their information public, in the public interest, include such complex and restrictive barriers that they end up helping nobody — again defeating their basic purpose.”

Professor Brown said current restrictions claim to balance the public interest, but are so skewed, they amount to a sledgehammer cracking a nut that simply doesn’t exist.

“The current state of the law, and actions like the AFP media raids, are only going to keep having a chilling effect on disclosures about wrongdoing which both regulators and the public really need to know about, unless and until our laws are reformed.”

As well as new, simpler criteria for when employees’ public disclosure of wrongdoing is reasonable and in the public interest, Professor Brown and his team are calling for:

  • Consistency in these criteria across national and state whistleblowing laws
  • Replacement of blanket barriers against disclosure of supposed national ‘intelligence’ information, with genuine principles for averting harm
  • Availability of a separate general public interest defence to the prosecution of any officials and employees — not just whistleblowers — for unauthorised disclosure of information, consistently with expired common law principles and international rights protections
  • A comprehensive update to press freedom protections.

With 17,778 respondents across multiple public and private sector organisations, the rerport is based on the world’s largest research dataset yet collected specifically for the purpose of understanding organisational responses to employee reporting of wrongdoing).