Eight modern-day whistleblowers (part I)

This Saturday, New Statesman and the Frontline Club host a special adversarial debate on the proposition "This house believes whistleblowers make the world a safer place". Here, we profile some of the most prominent whistleblowers in recent memory . . .

Joe Darby

In 2004, a US military reservist named Joe Darby passed a CD containing shocking images to a member of the army's criminal investigation command. The photographs on the disc were taken at Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad, and depicted US soldiers torturing, humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners. The images caused an international uproar. In the weeks that followed, after an investigation, instances of rape and homicide were also uncovered at the prison, photographs of which have since been suppressed by the Obama administration. Eleven soldiers were eventually convicted of charges relating to the incidents at Abu Ghraib and Darby was awarded a John F Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2005. But not all Americans have celebrated Darby's actions. Some, including members of his own family, have branded him a traitor. He now lives in an undisclosed location and has started a new life out of the army.

Daniel Ellsberg

While working as a US military analyst in the late 1960s, 38-year-old Daniel Ellsberg made copies of classified documents relating to the Vietnam war. The papers detailed America's political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 and demonstrated, in the words of Ellsberg, "unconstitutional behaviour by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates". Upon their publication in the New York Times in 1971, the Pentagon Papers caused a sensation, exposing how four consecutive presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson – had knowingly lied to the public over the war. The then president, Richard Nixon, tried to prosecute Ellsberg under the Espionage Act, but all charges were dismissed after it was revealed the prosecution had gathered evidence illegally through wiretaps and other means. Now aged 79, Ellsberg remains vocal in his support of other whistleblowers, and has been a staunch advocate of WikiLeaks.

Mark Felt

When five men were arrested after breaking into offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the Watergate Hotel in 1972, few expected the huge political scandal that would result. Known up until 2005 only as Deep Throat, Mark Felt, then associate director of the FBI, leaked details of the Watergate investigation to the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The investigation detailed how burglars who had broken into the DNC's offices had done so with the explicit prior knowledge of the White House, the department of justice, the FBI and the CIA. Most controversially, tape recordings of conversations between President Nixon and his closest aides revealed that Nixon himself was directly involved in attempting to cover up links between his administration and the break-in, forcing his resignation. For 30 years Felt denied he was the source of leaks to Woodward and Bernstein, but came out shortly before his death in 2008 at the insistence of his family.

Katharine Gun

An ex-translator for the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Katharine Gun was catapulted into the public eye after she leaked a top-secret email from the US National Security Agency in 2003. The email detailed US plans to illegally bug the offices of six UN countries in the lead-up to the Iraq war – contravening both the Vienna Conventions (the set of rules that govern global diplomacy) as well as the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. Gun, aged 29 at the time of the leak, felt that the email was a direct attempt to undermine democratic process in the run-up to war. It outlined how the US wanted British help in order to access "the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers the edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals or to head off surprises". After the Observer splashed the contents of the email across its front page just two weeks before the Iraq invasion, Gun was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. The prominence of the case won her high-profile support from the likes of the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see above) and the actor Sean Penn, and the charges were eventually dropped after the prosecution declined to offer evidence.

Read: Eight modern-day whistleblowers (part II)

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

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.