When BBC Radio 4’s The World at One asks you to go on their programme to comment about what your boss has told a national newspaper, and you know what he said is not true, you can decline the invitation. When your boss is the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, it’s a no-brainer. But when the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is conducting a formal investigation into whether the police misled the family of a man shot dead by the police, it can be a career-limiting decision to tell the truth.
These are the sorts of decisions whistleblowers face and more needs to be done to encourage and protect them.
We in this country are policed by consent. The police operate with the support and cooperation of the public based on the trust and confidence they have in their police. Other professions, such as the legal profession, similarly rely on the public having confidence in the integrity of its practitioners. But what happens when serious mistakes are made or misconduct takes place that could fundamentally damage that reputation and undermine public trust and confidence?
Clearly it is the duty of leaders to engage in damage limitation exercises but the integrity of an organization cannot be maintained by compromising its relationship with the truth.
The shooting of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, at Stockwell on 22 July 2005 as a suspected suicide bomber was the result of a catalogue of mistakes and errors. The police initially refused to allow the IPCC access to the scene despite the latter’s statutory responsibility to investigate.
The claim that no one knew de Menezes was innocent until 24 hours after the shooting was not true. To digitally alter de Menezes photograph to make him look more like the real would-be suicide bomber was foolhardy. To suggest minute traces of cocaine in his bloodstream may have made him appear agitated was medically implausible. For the armed officers to claim they shouted a warning, which no one else in the carriage heard, seemed unrealistic. When eventually the narrative unravelled, it caused even more reputational damage than the original mistakes, whatever the motivation.
Conversely, when an incident similar to Rodney King was unearthed on local authority CCTV following a riot in Brixton town centre, community leaders were informed immediately. Received wisdom dictated that they should only have been told if and when the officers involved had been identified and prosecuted. Instead, an incident that had the potential to cause serious damage to relations between the police and the black community had the opposite effect. An innocent member of the public had been viciously attacked by a police officer, but because we took respected leaders from his community into our confidence, this increased trust from this sector of the community.
Attempting to hide the misconduct of sexually predatory clergy, ignoring politicians who are abusing their expenses or turning a blind eye to the abuse of power by Hollywood moguls, and failing to support whistleblowers who try to expose wrongdoing, causes serious reputational damage when the truth inevitably comes out. No profession or businesses is immune from the need to consider how open or otherwise it is to reports of wrongdoing. I read today of a judge suing the government over lack of whistleblowing protection. We must continue to engage meaningfully and in an adult way with the twin issues of owning up to mistakes and whistleblowing. Failure to do so may help foster a culture where serious corruption goes unchecked.
Lord Paddick will be giving the keynote address at the Law Society’s Owning up to Mistakes Symposium on 6 November 2017.