64. Improving posture, for sitting ducks.

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Pfizer’s new team arrive, looking benign at first.

If you buy something in Waitrose you are given a green plastic token. On the way out you must make a choice between three charities by placing your token in the respective glass jar. To be honest, Waitrose have handed you a burden of responsibility you could well do without. Imagine what would happen if an ethical committee ever popped into Waitrose – they’d be stuck there for hours. Luckily, most people can  resolve ethical dilemmas by throwing a set of mental dice, much like answering the last few multiple choice questions as the examiner is coming towards you collecting the papers. If you don’t have this kind of moral adaptability; if you’re a person who never uses the word ‘whatever’, you might turn into a whistle-blower.

In a quiet news week NHS whistle-blower stories are a good way of filling up Page 8 in The Times. The new head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, wants to reassure whistle-blowers that they can speak out safely. He has even had the shark tank removed from under his office floor.

If you want to be a whistle-blower – and remember your careers teacher said not to – it’s important to brush up on  your movies. Start with ‘Serpico’, noting that it begins with the whistle-blower being shot and rushed to hospital. Serpico contains all the essential components for exposing poor practice , apart from the getting shot in the face aspect. Firstly, the character must be something of a Bohemian, with excellent hair and a Honda Superhawk. Secondly, the organisation that needs exposing has to be corrupt, through and through. In a conspiracy thriller it’s a given that corruption goes ‘all the way to the Mayor’s Office’. Never trust and confide in the mentor-like figure, played by an avuncular character actor, like Cliff Robertson. And thirdly, there has to be an audience that cares about the information revealed – proper journalists and a Congressional Committee. If your situation doesn’t have the Serpico ingredients no-one will take any notice and you will be marched out of the building, transferred to Runcorn, shot in the face, or all three.

The whistle-blower likes to be seen as a strong, principled and altruistic person who stands up against a corrupt system. Firstly, they exhaust the proper channels, then, finding everyone is in on the cover up, they take it outside the organisation, to the papers. In most cases, the whistle-blower is suspended from duty and very slowly discredited by the employer. Mostly they seem to lose their eventual employment tribunal and people assume that a lot of them are cranks. If they had paid attention to ‘The Insider’, they’d have been wise to all these shenanigans. For revealing that tobacco was surprisingly bad for you, Russell Crowe’s tobacco executive character was subjected to all sorts of dirty tricks by the company.

Whistle-blowers seem to get stuck in the system, sometimes for years. Some of them get stuck in embassies or Russia. Few of them get compensation or vindicated in front of a congressional hearing or portrayed as heroes.

Stories about deficiencies in the public services have lost a lot of their shock value. And employers have become more sophisticated in their powers of discrediting people. Whistle-blowers are often accused of non PC activities, such as being religious, arrogant, or failing to attend the fire lectures. That’s mavericks for you.

Essentially, whistle-blowing is not the British way of doing things, which is to muddle through and make the best of a bad situation. However, that changed a little since the ascendency of ‘management’ in public sector organisations. Managers made the mistake of believing they were running small private companies, when really they were administrators. All the major decisions, and all of the risk, is taken by central government. Yet managers have been successful in calling themselves Boards, styling themselves on private industry and paying themselves accordingly.

Local Trusts expected staff to be loyal to the Trust, but in reality they are only loyal to the NHS as a whole. This mismatch in loyalty plays out as follows: local manager as Sheriff of Nottingham, employee as Robin Hood, Simon Stevens as King Richard, David Nicholson (previous NHS chief) as King John.

The biggest problem for whistle-blowers is a sea change in public perceptions of organisations. No-one is surprised to find there is bullying or abuse within large institutions such as Oakwood Prison, or BBC’s Front Row program. Expectations are lowering and the shock threshold is rising. Medical whistle-blowing stories are losing their impact.  I suspect that the conspiracy thriller genre has been so influential that everyone now assumes that large organisations are corrupt propaganda machines. The only exception really is Waitrose. Feed the words ‘waitrose’ and ‘whistle-blowing’ into google and nothing happens – apart from one dark moment in 1997, when Waitrose were accused of organising duck shoots for their staff. According to a leading member of the National  Anti-Hunt Campaign, ‘Up to three times a week at the Leckford Abbas Estate near Stockbridge, Hants, parties of drunken John Lewis staff blast away at the pheasants, along with ducks, grouse, pigeons, squirrels and anything else that moves.’ These accusations were soundly refuted, which is reassuring. I don’t think the Anti Hunt Campaign get many green tokens down there, even now.

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