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

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.