Eight modern-day whistleblowers (part II)

Concluding our run-down of some of the most prominent whistleblowers in recent memory . . .

Clive Ponting

A former senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, Clive Ponting leaked information about the sinking of an Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, in 1984. The classified documents revealed that, contrary to official accounts of the incident, the ship was outside an exclusion zone and was moving away from a Royal Navy taskforce when it was sunk by the submarine HMS Conqueror, resulting in the loss of 323 lives. Ponting was charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act 1911 after the leak, but was later acquitted by a jury which decided, against the direction of the presiding judge, that it was in the "public interest" for the documents to be released. In the years following Ponting's acquittal, the Thatcher government introduced the Official Secrets Act 1989, which in effect removed the public-interest defence. Ponting has since written 13 books. His latest, A New Green History of the World: the Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilisations, was published in 2007 by Penguin.

Frank Serpico

Frank Serpico's story was immortalised in 1973 after the release of a film depicting his time as a cop in New York. Starring Al Pacino, the film – titled simply Serpico – detailed the true story of a principled young policeman's battle against endemic corruption in the NYPD. Serpico was appalled by what he witnessed: drug deals, bribes and various other criminal dealings, involving colleagues at the highest levels of the force. With no other option, eventually he blew the whistle, reporting the corruption to journalists at the New York Times. In the weeks that followed, he was subjected to intense intimidation by officers at all levels of the NYPD, and at one point was shot in the face in what was rumoured to have been an attempted "execution". He was eventually awarded an NYPD medal of honour in 1972, but claims he has continued to be shunned by the department. Married four times and having travelled Europe for several years in a camper van, Serpico now lives in a cabin in relative seclusion near New York. Aged 74, he remains vocal in condemning police corruption.

Mordechai Vanunu

Between 1975 and 1985, Mordechai Vanunu worked as a nuclear technician for the Israeli government. Throughout this period, Israel claimed it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. But in 1986, Vanunu leaked information to the British press revealing that the country had in fact manufactured between 150 and 200 nuclear bombs and was also attempting to produce a hydrogen bomb, the most destructive of all. After the publication of Vanunu's leaked information in the Sunday Times on 5 October 1986, he was lured from London to Italy by Cheryl Bentov, a US citizen doubling as an Israeli intelligence agent. He was then taken by boat to Israel, where he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. Released in 2004 after serving 16 years of the sentence, Vanunu today remains subject to strict conditions that forbid him from leaving Israel, using the internet or the telephone. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize on more than 16 occasions, and served as Rector of Glasgow University from 2004-2007 while still confined in Israel, risking imprisonment to remain in regular contact with students.

Bradley Manning (?)

Private First Class Bradley Manning is the 23-year-old US soldier accused of leaking more than 720,000 diplomatic and military documents to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. He was arrested in May 2010 by US authorities in Iraq after he allegedly confessed to a friend that he had obtained and released classified files. An avid and proficient computer user, Manning reportedly discovered instances of war crimes while serving in Iraq, but was told to "shut up" by his commanding officer when he tried to have something done about it. According to unverified chat logs, he then took it on himself to "blow the whistle" by leaking classified files to WikiLeaks in order to expose instances of wrongdoing – such as a video depicting the killing of 12 civilians (including two Reuters journalists) by US Apache helicopters in 2007. Manning, who has not yet faced trial, has since been in solitary confinement for over 300 days in conditions that have been widely condemned by campaigners and human rights groups. Critics say Manning – if indeed he is the leaker – is a traitor who has endangered the lives of American soldiers. He faces 34 charges, the most serious of which, known as "aiding the enemy", carries the death penalty.

Read: Eight modern-day whistleblowers (part I)

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London, currently working for the Frontline Club. His website is here

Getty
Show Hide image

Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

0800 7318496