Whistleblowers: should they get more protection?

The process could be simplified.

With the current emphasis on corporate governance and paying your fair share of tax, whistleblowing is centre stage - isn’t it time the government revisited our laws in this controversial area?

With major scandals affecting our MP’s, financial institutions, the media and the police it is little wonder that by the end of 2012 corporate governance was the new “black” in the business world and looks set stay. The emphasis upon appropriate corporate controls and culture has been reinforced by the highly publicised tax offensive targeting the former no man’s land of offshore companies and bank accounts.

The overriding theme is clear - times are difficult, mistakes have been made and businesses and individuals have a duty to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of money available to help promote this cultural shift and so 2012 also saw publication of the government’s plans for the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements – the newest weapon in the cash strapped armoury of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) – where, if the case is suitable, entities self reporting on fraud can hope to do a deal. It is no coincidence that this has been put in place with an anticipated 2013 focus from the SFO and its new director on enforcing the provisions of the Bribery Act.

One has only to look carefully at the UK government’s guidance on whistleblowing to see where the problems lie

The SFO’s confidential reporting hotline is also doing brisk business and the soon to be reconfigured FSA has had a whistleblowing hotline for many years. So-called “bounty payments” by HMRC have also been in the press where informants have received discretionary payments for information that has led to additional tax recoveries.

In this climate the role of the whistleblower has never been more prominent and yet UK legislation does little to recognise the increased importance of this role. Any auditor will tell you that two of the most effective weapons a business can deploy against fraud are the establishment of a zero tolerance culture backed up by a fraud reporting hotline available to employees, customers, suppliers and anyone else who has dealings with the company.

In the UK whistleblowing legislation is set out within the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 although this will be amended by Vince Cable’s Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which is expected to become law later this year and will remove a loophole where concerns about a personal employment contract could be raised.

Unfortunately, it is proposed the whistleblower will now also have to decide what is in the public interest.

In an environment where government, regulators and prosecutors are seeking to both reinforce and enhance controls within the business and wider community a more fundamental review of whistleblowing legislation in the UK is long overdue.

One has only to look carefully at the UK government’s guidance on whistleblowing to see where the problems lie. Potential whistleblowers are invited to check their employment contract or HR department to ascertain if their company has a whistleblowing procedure.

If I were an employee I would already be worried – the process seems likely to become legal and HR departments are not renowned for supporting the employee in a matter involving the behaviour of management. What do I do if I’m not an employee but a third party or a sub- contractor and if I am an employee what do I do if there is no whistleblowing policy? Government guidance fails to clearly address these points and the law itself is unclear.

The rest of this article appears on economia.

whistleblowing is centre stage. Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Smethurst is a partner in the forensic and investigation practice at accountancy firm, Carter Backer Winter LLP

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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