As with buses, you can stand around ages waiting for a whistleblower to turn up and suddenly three arrive in quick succession.
The trio currently grabbing varying degrees of attention are Edward Snowden, an American intelligence contractor, Kay Sheldon, a non-executive board member of the UK’s Care Quality Commission (CQC), and Peter Francis, a former Metropolitan Police undercover officer.
Their revelations couldn’t be more diverse, but all share the common denominators of courage, principle and a burning fervour to unmask chicanery by officialdom, whether it’s cock-ups, cover-ups masking incompetence or new-fangled skulduggery.
And, without their intervention, whatever we regard as democracy risks being nudged a tad further behind a cosmetic facade, where freedom is in danger of becoming meaningless in all but name, just as in gangster regimes which boast of being the peoples’ democratic republic of one rats’ nest or another.
So our tacit deal with those we choose to govern us is that we accept the price liberty is living with a measure of state secrecy. Because someone, somewhere – maybe enemies in our very midst – has an agenda to penetrate and upset our cosy little world.
This, however, brings attendant dilemmas, such as: where do we draw a line over how much freedom is sacrificed to those who watch over our interests and, vitally, who watches the watchers?
Snowden, a 30-year-old ex-CIA staffer employed by a company working for America’s National Security Agency (NSA), clearly believed the spook community had outgrown its boots by unleashing two, clandestine mass surveillance programmes, codenamed PRISM and Tempora.
Far from employed against external threats – no prizes for guessing which nations qualify for that tag – the spyware is being used to pry on cellphone callers and emailers in the US and the UK (and maybe beyond, given Germany’s reaction), since its stealth-tech was shared with Britain’s top-secret listening station, GCHQ.
While most of us simple-minded folk might take the quaint view that our cyber chatter is innocuous, Snowden’s whistleblowing – a term coined in the 1970s by US civic rights campaigner, Ralph Nader – has brought into sharp relief how far Big Brother’s tentacles stretch and whether the protection of our liberty has ballooned into an invasion of it.
In contrast, Kay Sheldon has blown the lid off a domestic scandal, but one that has shaken the founding pillar of Britain’s welfare state: the NHS.
As a non-executive board member of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), this brave, single-minded woman exposed the catastrophic shortcomings of an organisation established to stop hospital mismanagement and an old boy – and girl – network that was more preoccupied with its own public image than the public it was meant to serve.
Her revelations originally came to light during a 2011 public inquiry into the serial maladministration of Mid-Staffs Hospital, where 1,200 patients died needlessly.
The then CQC hierarchy tried to excuse this as a ‘one-off’, but Sheldon knew it was at best a cover-up, at worst a lie, and denounced her own board for failing to investigate the unusually high number of baby deaths at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust.
However, instead of receiving the nation’s gratitude for her principled stand, Andrew Lansley, Health Minister at the time, personally threatened Sheldon with the sack, until she hit back and he backed down.
That was only after a brazen attempt by one (now former) CQC executive to paint her as a flaky paranoid schizophrenic.
Because, if such altruistic people can’t be paid off – and the NHS has parted with over £15M of tax-payers cash to 600 potential whistleblowers in exchange for gagging orders – ‘mental instability’ is often cited to discredit their evidence.
So it should be no surprise that few who sacrifice themselves on the high altar of decency rarely come through the ordeal unscathed.
Peter Francis, formerly a member of Scotland Yard’s secretive Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), claims he was threatened on several occasions that if he ever talked about his work he’d be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.
Now he’s gambling that the law he once protected won’t put him in the dock for publically admitting how he infiltrated the family of murdered teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in an attempt to smear their anti-racism campaign and deflect attention from the Met’s botched enquiry into the killing.
However, the ex-police spy says his lowest point was undermining the campaign of the family who wanted justice over the death of boxing instructor Brian Douglas, a 33-year-old hit over the head with a police baton in 1995, after he was stopped for driving erratically.
Francis goes even further with startling revelations about the SDS’s sister squad, the equally-shadowy National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which sent undercover officers to penetrate groups of ‘political activists’, sometimes cynically coercing women members into sexual liaisons.
For the record, like most people, I’d never before heard of the SDS or NPOIU, but now have to wonder how many other quasi-secret police departments operate in Britain, who commands them, who are these chiefs accountable to and on what basis do they decide their targets.
Finally, there is one further, key element that provides whistleblowers with the means to air exposés that would otherwise probably go unseen and unheard: a fearless media.
In his report last November into phone-hacking and reporting standards, Lord Leveson recommended a new watchdog be established to curb Press excesses and it should operate under a Royal Charter.
This was a noble, but lame attempt to minimise political power over newspapers (but, noticeably, not the Internet). And, despite reassurances, it would nonetheless still involve ministers and MPs in having a say in the regulator’s composition and scope.
So far most UK national newspaper editors – quite rightly in my opinion – have signalled they won’t sign up to Leveson’s proposal, because it would shackle in-depth, investigative journalism.
Anyone seeking evidence to support that argument need look no further than the coverage given to whistleblowers.