At one point Katharine Gun seemed to be a bit of a heroine; she’d exposed the skulduggery of the intelligence services who were prepared to spy on “friends” at the UN and she was prepared to pay for it with her job. Once exposed, she was instantly labelled a ‘whistleblower’ and her case seized on by the human rights movement - and in the US she became something of a celebrity where prominent anti-war campaigners - Sean Penn and Jesse Jackson among them - all but deified her.
The net result is that Gun is the best-known whistleblower in the UK and no doubt she can look forward to lucrative personal appearances in the United States. But before everyone gets carried away with her apparent bravery, it is worth asking whether or not she has furthered the case for protecting whistleblowers.
In 1998 the government introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Act which gives protection to workers who blow the whistle on wrongdoing.
Its purpose is to encourage employees to expose wrongdoing before major harm is caused and to protect them from any subsequent victimisation by the employer.
The sorts of wrongdoing that the PIDA seeks to expose are criminal offences; the breaching of legal obligations; miscarriages of justice; dangers to health or safety of individuals; damage to the environment; and the deliberate covering up of information. All of which would seem pretty reasonable.
However, does that make Gun a whistleblower? Well, for a start, the leaking of an Official Secret is a criminal offence in itself and so would not be covered by the PIDA definitions; and even though the prosecution under the Official Secrets Act failed, she would not be considered a whistleblower on that count.
But I wonder whether she is a whistleblower, even as described by the PIDA.
My problem is that Gun objected to something which would seem to be in the everyday business of her employers. The purpose of the intelligence services is to gather intelligence (no matter how unsavoury that intelligence might be) and Gun should have thought about the nature of what she would be doing long before she accepted a job at GCHQ.
After all, in the food industry we don’t really expect vegetarians to become butchers.
Gun deciding she was quite right to leak documents which she didn’t like the contents of seems to be on a par with that and a pretty naïve admission of not thinking through what she was getting herself into.
All of which means I’m not so sure that Gun has done anything for the cause of true whistleblowers and I would rather not see her bracketed with the genuinely brave decent people who take on their employers, not out of a political motivation but because of real ethical beliefs.
A parallel to all this might be the difference between a GM scientist who decided to leak documents for no other reason than not liking GM any more, and one who leaked documents because issues of real public safety were being covered up. The law is there to protect the latter, but employers should have some form of defence from the whims of the former.
Interviewed on Newsnight, Gun said that her reason for joining GCHQ was that she wanted to “do something with her languages” and it seemed that she had thought little more than that about the implications of her career choice.
All of which is rather sad, because, as it happens, I am as sceptical as anyone else of the government’s behaviour in the lead up to war and would never want to defend anything so undemocratic as the Official Secrets Act.
But much as Gun may have thought she was acting for the greater good, I believe she was misguided and has put back the case for protecting whistleblowers.
In fact, more than anything else, she has shown that she was the wrong person doing the wrong job - which is of course what good recruitment practice always tries to prevent.