View from the Chair: Whistleblowing must be a last resort

“A voice that should not be silenced” is how Julian Assange was described by his lawyer, following his return to Australia and freedom. A sentiment that will be echoed widely throughout the democratic world. A traitor to some but a whistleblower, trying to do the right thing, to most. At a recent forum of Chairs and non-executive directors of regulated financial services firms, the importance of a strong ‘speak up’ culture was re-iterated.

Even as pre-election purdah has drawn a temporary veil over the Department for Business and Trade’s review of the UK’s whistleblowing framework, it’s clear that changes to the regime are urgently required. These include extending the scope of protection provided to whistleblowers and bringing the legislation up to date with modern working practices. With the newly elected Labour government’s manifesto promising to strengthen the rights and protections of whistleblowers, further change can be expected.

Nevertheless, an improvement in the legislation is not the only answer. There are two reasons why potential whistleblowers are discouraged from speaking up: fear and futility. Fear, because the language used in relation to whistleblowing is largely about protection, so there must be something awful out there for which protection is needed. Futility, in the sense that often there is a resignation that making a report is unlikely to change anything. So, what is the point?

While many whistleblowing reports may not technically constitute whistleblowing, as defined in the legislation, such reports inevitably reveal something about the organisation that merits further investigation. In that sense, every report is helpful. On the other hand, getting no reports may not of itself be a cause for concern, if boards can be sure that the culture is right, staff are trained appropriately, and the system has been tested.

Governments and regulators can only do so much. While a review of the current law will help, real drivers for change lie in the hands of boards, and in some cases non-executive directors, to create cultures where a ‘speak up’ approach is actively encouraged. An environment where individuals are encouraged to speak up, without the need to seek the protection of whistleblowing legislation, is always going to be preferable. Avoiding, on one hand, legal technicalities and worries about anonymity and on the other the temptation for disgruntled individuals to create trumped up allegations to further their own causes, has to be a win-win. At the heart of this is good leadership, the building of trust, and open communications.


‘View from the Chair’ is Bovill Newgate’s regular column from our Executive Chair Ben Blackett-Ord who founded the firm in 1999 and led it as CEO until 2022. Ben continues to support Bovill Newgate’s executive team and clients, as well as being a prominent figure in the industry.