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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.