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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.