Partners Mary Inman and Henry Su discuss whistleblowing in Montfort Communications’ webinar "Whistleblowing: a Legal and Media Perspective from Both Sides of the Atlantic"
Constantine Cannon partners Mary Inman and Henry Su, alongside two renowned journalists – Katherine Eban and Martin Bright, participated in a webinar on whistleblowing issues across the pond, which was moderated by Stuart Leach, Head of Litigation and Disputes at Montfort Communications and aired last week.
The webinar focused on the differences in treatment of whistleblowers in both the U.S. and UK. Mary stressed that there is a common cultural shift on both sides of the Atlantic towards greater recognition of and appreciation for whistleblowers. She explained that the U.S. has more programs that embrace truth-tellers and empower them to bring their claims to the US enforcement agencies under various whistleblower reward programs (CFTC, SEC, IRS and the False Claims Act). The enforcement landscape is very much different in the UK where many whistleblowers remain frustrated upon making disclosures to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and are disappointed by the lack of any meaningful response or action by the FCA. In Mary’s words “in the U.S., we are able to activate and allow whistleblowers to actually bring their claim forward and not just be protected against retaliation but, looking forward, have their information be utilised to right the wrong that they signalled the alarm about in the first place”. Katherine further added that the U.S. system is better designed for whistleblowers as it clearly indicates legal protections that offer support to individuals. Martin also shared his experience of handling the story of intelligence services whistleblower Katharine Gun in the UK and said that the British example of whistleblowing is still a very troubled one. The idea of secrecy is still very much instilled in the British culture – there has always been an assumption of secrecy in the government and lawyers, as well as the press, are responsible for prompting the government to disclose information, whereas the U.S. system is a prime example of the opposite.
The panel also discussed the current COVID-19 crisis and the role of whistleblowers. Henry said the pandemic is not just about emergency funds flowing to businesses and the adversely affected but also about public health. He highlighted that the pandemic shows there are people who are ready to expose the truth at great personal cost for the greater public good, not just because dollars could be wasted, but because people could lose their lives. Mary added it is vital in the U.S. that whistleblowers become watchdogs especially in the current crisis, when governments have been less than forthcoming with information about their handling of the coronavirus, it is important that whistleblowers speak out. All panellists agreed that the key is to make individuals feel safe to come forward and have robust legislation to protect them against retaliation.
In conclusion, all participants acknowledged that there has been an unprecedented expansion of whistleblower reward programs which empower whistleblowers across the world. There are greater global collaborations among investigative journalists that expose transnational wrongdoing. There have also been more legislative efforts to strengthen whistleblower protections; however, there must be more willingness from both sides of the pond to learn from the shortcomings of their respective whistleblower systems. Both journalists warned that the path for whistleblowers has always been challenging and it will largely remain so. As highlighted by Katherine, the U.S. has in recent years been experiencing repeated attacks on the press and whistleblowers, while Martin shared his concerns about the decline of UK investigative journalism. It is therefore imperative that those who decide to do the right thing for the benefit of the public are supported and adequately protected.
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