Why Most Financial Whistle-Blowers Go Unheard

The most effective whistle-blowers aren't the ones with the most compelling revelations—they're the ones whose messages happen to reverberate at any given cultural moment.

Think whistle-blowing is a matter of telling the truth? Think again. “Successful” whistle-blowing, in which the protagonist actually manages to make themselves heard in the media and get the support of the public, is a matter of luck.

Last month a new whistle-blower emerged to tell us about the goings-on in a well-known bank, JPMorgan. Alayne Fleischmann gave her description of how the firm handled the approaching car crash in the market for packaging and reselling mortgage debt. She joins the small but important number of fellow banking whistle-blowers. From Ireland’s Jonathan Sugarman and Olivia Greene to the U.K.’s Paul Moore, some people did try to speak up about the misdeeds that lead to the global financial crash.

Fleischmann is a little different however—she is working on a deadline. Time is running out to prosecute her former employers. Fleischmann would like to see convictions on the basis of wire fraud, which in the U.S. has a 10-year statute of limitation—and it’s already been eight since she witnessed the alleged events she has described. The clock is ticking and Fleischmann is making an appeal for people to listen to her story.

This well-spoken securities lawyer is bravely forgoing any future career in banking by forcing herself into the limelight to make this point. Statistically, a whistle-blower is unlikely to work in their industry again. As she told Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, "The assumption they make is that I won't blow up my life to do it… But they're wrong about that."

So what’s luck got to do with it? Well, if Fleischmann had read the research on whistle-blowing she would know that most whistle-blowers’ stories are simply not heard. In the vast majority of cases, people who speak out suffer in silence, alone and unheard. There is a way of drawing the attention of the public and the media. But it is an elusive one.

Successful whistle-blowers are not those with the most shocking truths, but rather they are the ones who happen to tap into a current trend. Their stories match up with what the media are excited about, what the public are angry about, or what the politicians can use for political capital at that particular time. Rather depressingly, therefore, the truth is a matter of trends.

Need convincing? Look at Rudolf Elmer, the Swiss banker who tried for years to alert the media in his own nation about his bank’s alleged role in the process of tax evasion. He became involved in a protracted dispute with his bank, which made allegations of forgery and theft against him.

He was painted as a thief and a blackmailer by journalists in Switzerland and even imprisoned for over six months. Fearful for his future and his family, Elmer agonized about what to do, until something dawned on him: the realpolitik of whistle-blowing. Switzerland didn’t want to hear, but perhaps another country would.

Elmer contacted The Guardian and was welcomed warmly. The U.K., and most of Europe, was trying to clamp down on the assistance Swiss banks might offer to wealthy citizens who want to avoid tax. There was an appetite for his story, and through the newspaper, and Wikileaks, he made his story public. Elmer, in other words, tapped into a trend in the U.K. when there was no such appetite in Switzerland.

Many other banking whistle-blowers have found that trends are important. When I was interviewing banking whistle-blowers for my book on this topic, it came up again and again. For example, Paul Moore at HBOS managed to appear on the BBC to tell his story about the overheated sales culture at the Halifax. It was just at the time of the U.K. Treasury Select Committee, when the public was screaming for news of why the banks had collapsed. Politicians were delighted to see him coming—and he was celebrated in the media.

While Moore suffered for his disclosures, fortuitous timing meant he could tell his story and counter any of the usual smearing by his former employer or backlash by the media. Likewise, Eileen Foster, a whistle-blower at Countrywide (later Bank of America) in the U.S. was contacted by the influential TV show 60 Minutes—and this was very helpful for her campaign for justice.

Now, back to Wall Street and Fleischmann’s struggle to draw attention to events at her former bank. She should try to figure out how she can tap into current political and media trends. It sounds shallow, and somewhat cynical, but when it comes to other whistle-blowers, it does appear that “truth” is contingent—it depends on the time and the place. Insert yourself into the news cycle and you might just avoid being crushed by the wheels.

What does this say about the value society places on whistle-blowing? If the truth is not enough to get attention, perhaps there is a problem with the way whistle-blowers are perceived. Even the most honest whistle-blowers have been seen as suspicious figures, a cultural perception that persists in our media and our institutions.

Groups that support and help whistle-blowers have been trying hard to change this perception, and a great example is G.A.P.’s Whistle-blower Tour, which brings people’s real-life experiences to audiences across the United States. Transparency International Ireland has hosted similar events. Culture change is not easy, but these groups are trying.

Whistle-blowing remains something of a lottery. Is this a fair way to treat whistle-blowers, to leave their lives up to chance? Until there is a more robust system for listening to genuine public interest disclosures, it looks like this is all we've got.

This post appears courtesy of The Conversation.