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Blowing the whistle, without getting whacked

As we launch our training programme for journalists, let’s not forget about the real lifeblood of any news organisation – the sources.

Illustration: Ben Dorling

Ideas and Action

As we launch our training programme for journalists, let’s not forget about the real lifeblood of any news organisation – the sources.

Journalists are only as good as their sources. The simple fact is that there are some stories you can find yourself from your desk, but many tales most worthy of telling originate in places a journalist can’t reach. They might come directly from people battered and abused by the system, or from people on the other side of the desk watching in horror as it happens. For those stories to come out, someone has to take a risk to tell the press about it.

But that makes it sound scary, which it doesn’t need to be. Of course, if the scandal at the heart of the story is big enough and the whistleblower has chosen to shout their complaints publicly then they may get into a lot of trouble, with their (former) employers, friends, family, the courts or the bank. But that’s in a select few cases.

When you think of ‘calling the papers’ you may think of that outcome: being a public whistleblower. But what the Cable also needs are eyes and ears across the city – not whistleblowers, or leaks, just people being a bit nosier than usual and having a chat with us if they see or hear things that bother them.

This is your guide on how to feed information to the Cable, making sure the people who don’t want it getting out don’t get away with it, while not getting caught up in a game of whack-the-whistleblower in the process.

Experts in the obscure

For us journalists an ‘expert’ is anyone who knows more than we do. Our job is mostly finding people to explain things to us, so we can make sense of a jumble of facts and turn it into a story. Some of the systems we investigate are so complicated it could take a lifetime to learn how they work and what’s wrong with them – but some of you have been doing exactly that.

That doesn’t necessarily mean being an expert in the traditional sense – often these are simply people who’ve taken an interest in their local area and found they know a great deal about it. These are the people doing the hidden groundwork of proper journalism, analysing the public sources on a daily basis and working their specialist contacts by living and breathing the issue.

Our experts send us tip-offs about the latest developments in their field, be it NHS policy, their neighbourhood housing development or the incoming round of job cuts. It might be common knowledge for you but it might not be for the Cable team – and even then we might not have considered all the angles.

Don’t tell anyone I told you this but…

Of course, if you are working within ‘the system’ then it starts to get difficult when your sense of the public interest, or ‘what the public ought to know’, conflicts with the official line. This is when you can go ‘off the record’; helpful for people who want to tell the truth without bringing adverse consequences on themselves. Not everyone needs to blow the whistle as such – a quiet word will often work just as well.

Now we’re in the territory of riskier information, things people may fight to prevent going public. What the Cable can do is try to ensure that if there’s trouble, they’re fighting us and not you, by keeping your existence hidden. All management know is that we’re asking questions; no one needs to know why.

Printing a story based on a single, unnamed source is legally shaky. But once you get two or three anonymous sources all saying the same thing then you’re on much firmer ground. So, you never know, if you call in, you might be that third person who turns a rumour into a killer story.

Leaking and sneaking

A little higher on the danger scale are information smugglers. Some issues can’t be explained without proof written out in internal documents. If the official channels like the Freedom of Information Act don’t work, there’s only one way to get the story out – and that’s with a leak.

This means being careful. Don’t email from your work account and don’t forget that printers are networked and monitored too. Your phone camera does a good job of copying emails and documents. If you’re technically savvy, you can send encrypted emails and for those that aren’t then snail-mail is super secure.

Obviously there are risks here too – which if you send information to us we’ll be chatting over with you at this point. Nine times out of 10, leaked documents let us report the facts while obscuring where we got them from. But there are cases where only a few people are in the loop, which makes things trickier.

whistle by Ellen HardimanBlowing the whistle

But maybe you’re no longer content to feed information – you decide to waive your anonymity in order to shout your concerns from rooftops. Going public like this is dangerous but sometimes it’s the only way. Without anonymity the only protection the Cable can offer is that by making your complaint front-page news, your adversary is unlikely to then improve their situation if they make life hard for you.

Keep in mind though that this is an extreme example – a source can range from being a gossip, a local expert, a secret source through to a public whistleblower. We’ll guide you through the whole process, explain what’s going to happen and only move forward with your informed consent. The last thing we want to do is get anyone in trouble, so we’ll do everything we can to prevent it.

So there you have it readers, if you want to keep the Cable fresh, challenging and powerful, you’ve got some work to be doing too. It’s not going to be enough to have just a handful of coordinators looking out for the city, we need to build up a network of gossips, experts and sources to try and hold this city to account.

For more specific info for leaking to the Cable see our page on anonymous submissions.

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