Despite facing often draconian measures, whistleblowers are increasingly winning public support, reveals a new survey

The Obama administration has gone in hard against alleged whistleblowers, such as Bradley Manning. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Whistleblowing is relevant in the UK now more than ever, as the recent stream of high profile cover-ups and the relentless clamp downs on truth tellers has shown. The Hillsborough Inquiry, the string of serious problems in the NHS and related health agencies, the recently revealed Ministry of Defence internal document gagging whistleblowers from revealing wrongdoing to their own MPs. The list of examples goes on and on. They illustrate exactly why we need whistleblowers in society in the first place.

Whistleblowing is when members of an organisation reveal inside information about serious wrongdoing to someone they believe can act on it. Whistleblowers don’t have to be employees; they can be members of a school or church community organisation, for example. A good example of this is the whistleblowers who stepped forward to confirm incidents of paedophilia in Catholic institutions over the past decade.

The word whistleblower used to evoke images of shady characters whispering secrets in dark car parks. Now it’s increasingly seen as central to a healthy democracy. This trend in public attitude is happening simultaneously around the globe. A 2012 random sample Newspoll survey in Australia of 1,211 people showed that 81% believed whistleblowers should be protected and not punished, even if they reveal inside information.

The advent of online leaks news sites like WikiLeaks have likely played a role in this. There are more than 15 leaks-related sites with another, Ljost (or ‘light’ in Icelandic) officially launched by the The Associate Whistleblowing Press on 30 September.

Technology such as anonymising software like Tor, free file encryption programs such as GPG, and access to journalists via Twitter have all converged to make fertile ground for 21st century whistleblowing. It’s faster, easier and doesn’t involve any dark car parks.

This may be why western governments are running crackdowns against whistleblowers with a vehemence rarely seen in recent history. The Obama administration has gone in hard against alleged whistleblowers and in some cases journalists. The target list includes former US NSA senior executive Thomas Drake, army private Bradley Manning and reporter James Risen.

Governments are now also frequently turning technology inward to spy on employees and others in an effort to thwart whistleblowing to the media. So while whistleblowing has become easier, spying technology has also made it riskier to do online.

However, it appears the public is becoming impatient with governments that spend all their time on whistleblower witch hunts instead of punishing the underlying wrongdoing. There also seems to be a growing sense of unfairness with the David and Goliath battles, where the little guy trying to do the right thing is so outgunned from the start.

Whistleblowing tends to go hand in hand with coverups. The independent panel investigating the Hillsborough tragedy in which 96 football fans died found that police had not only lied about what happened, they had deliberately altered evidence of those who tried to tell the truth. Public outrage at the cover up was so great prime minister David Cameron had to apologise to the victims’ families.

Like Hillsborough, the Mid Staffordshire NHS Inquiry highlights growing public concern over wrongdoing and coverups. In following up reports of unusually high hospital mortality rates, an independent inquiry criticised the Stafford Hospital’s handling of patients. The few whistleblowers who dared to stand up were ignored or suffered retaliation. Another apology from the PM had to be made, again to the victims and families.

Britain now waits for the results of a new, wider public inquiry chaired by Robert Francis QC. The final report, including review of the million-plus pages of evidence, was due to be released this month. However Francis recently announced that the report would not now be delivered until early 2013. There is skepticism among health workers as to whether this inquiry – the fifth – will truly be fearless in seeking to fix the sick system.

The NHS and related health agencies’ woes have continued to mount with two high-profile whistleblowing cases pointing to more allegations of wrongdoing. In the first, radiology service manager Sharmila Chowdhury revealed allegations that doctors were being paid to see NHS patients while they were actually moonlighting with their own private patients. Ealing Hospital NHS Trust sacked Ms Chowdhury but a Watford employment tribunal judge ordered that she be reinstated. She has subsequently been made redundant – after facing legal fees of more than £100,000 to defend herself.

In a second case, a non-executive director of the regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC), Kay Sheldon, faced accusations of being ‘mentally ill’ and attempts to sack her after she blew the whistle at a public inquiry into CQC. This is a classic response to whistleblowers: they are either ‘bad’ or ‘mad’ and thus their criticisms must not be valid.

While whistleblowers play an important role in revealing wrongdoing to the public, there is surprisingly little academic research on whistleblowing to the media, and even less on the role of technology in it. I am the principal researcher on an international study team that hopes to shed light on how technology is impacting on whistleblowing, particularly to the news organisations. In addition to interviewing whistleblowers and the investigative journalists who interact with them, we are also running a detailed online survey.

The World Online Whistleblowing Survey (WOWs) is the first online survey aimed at gauging the general public’s attitudes to whistleblowing that is being run in so many languages. The anonymous survey is available in 11 languages and is open to everyone to participate, not just whistleblowers.

The study team includes researchers from Griffith University and the University of Melbourne in Australia, and Georgetown University in the US. Early data from the online survey points strongly to a public belief among both Australian and British respondents that there is too much secrecy in organisations (a breathtaking 90% in both cases).

However, British respondents were more cynical than Australians about the usefulness of official channels for reporting wrongdoing in organisations.

About 38% of Australians believed that going to authorities via official channels was the best way to stop serious wrongdoing while only 15% of respondents from the UK agreed. Instead 43% of UK respondents thought going to the media was the most effective way, compared to 27% of Australians.

The increasing importance of whistleblowing in the health area is evidenced by a recent conference on the topic run jointly between the British Medical Association and the Patients First group. Whistleblower pediatrician Dr Kim Holt, a speaker at the event, co-founded Patients First in response to the persistent mistreatment of whistleblowers in health. She said UK legislation did not properly defend whistleblowers, and it needed to be amended to address problems such as whistleblowers facing employer ‘gag’ clauses on revealing wrongdoing and huge legal defence costs.

It’s clear whistleblowing is an important part of a participatory democracy, yet many still remain confused about what value governments and legal scholars place on it. Time will tell what influence cases such as Wikileaks and the NHS will have on this value, but one thing seems likely – despite facing often draconian measures, whistleblowers are increasingly winning public support.

Sulette Dreyfus is a research fellow at The University of Melbourne and is part of the international research team behind the World Online Whistleblowing Survey, which you can complete here