Dianthus Medical Blog Archive

A bad day for whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is an important part of ensuring safety in medicine (and indeed many other areas), although sadly one which is often not handled well. In theory, reporting unsafe behaviour in a colleague can help to ensure unsafe behaviour is nipped in the bud. In practice, however, the person who blows the whistle often ends up doing very badly out of it.

I guess this anti-whistleblower mentality is instilled in us from an early age. Small children who get into fights in the school playground generally face disapproval from their peers if they are the one who goes to "tell teacher" about it (at least they did when I was a small child, and I'd be surprised if much has changed in the intervening decades).

This is a shame. By making life difficult for whistleblowers, we are missing an opportunity to make the practice of medicine (and other things) safer than it is at the moment.

And yesterday was a bad day for whistleblowing.

Why's that? Well, during a debate in Parliament, Paul Flynn, the MP for Newport West, accused Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, of lying to Parliament about the war in Afghanistan. Paul Flynn, who you could argue was acting as a whistleblower in identifying unacceptable behaviour from a government minister, was the one who was punished for this. He was suspended from Parliament for 5 days without pay. The school playground ethic of "don't tell the teacher" seems to be alive and well in Parliament, which is perhaps fitting: those who are familiar with the weekly pantomime of "Prime Minister's Questions" will be aware that Parliament takes the school playground very seriously as a role model for its behaviour.

Now, I must confess that I have not been following this story closely enough to know whether Hammond was lying or not. It seems quite possible that he was: Flynn presumably knew that accusations of lying are not to be made lightly. But that doesn't actually seem to matter here. The mere accusation of lying was enough for Flynn to be suspended from Parliament. No-one asked whether the accusation was true or not.

This sets a really bad example. It gives the message that people in power must not be challenged, and that those who do challenge them, even if that challenge is entirely legitimate, will be punished.

It is hard to think of a worse message to send to whistleblowers.

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