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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Aug 23, 2010 - 8:24:15 PM


The high price of challenging political, business and religious power
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Jun 12, 2009 - 5:04:14 PM

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The corporate headquarters in Edinburgh, of HBOS - - Halifax Bank of Scotland - - now part of the Lloyds Banking Group

The crash of the Irish economy and international headlines such asIrish Priests Beat, Raped Children,” should prompt the serious question: Why did so few shout stop? There is a simple answer. Challenging conventional wisdom often comes at a high price and the whistleblower is more often than not the biggest loser. Any amount of legal protection will not change this reality across the globe. However, a society needs to have dissidents, to evolve.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in late 1989, many ex-Communist apparatchiks, declared that they had been closet democrats all-along. However their counterparts, opponents of tyranny, had lived through a very difficult course. A decade before, a mundane bulletin board in central Beijing, had become known as the Democracy Wall. One night, Wei Jingsheng, then a twenty-eight-year-old electrician, posted an essay, The Fifth Modernisation, on the board. China's leader Deng Xiaoping had recently launched the economic development programme called the Four Modernisations and Wei argued that democracy should be added to the government's agenda.

Released early from a 15-year prison sentence in 1993, to impress the International Olympic Committee, within six months, Wei was convicted of "counter-revolution" and sentenced to another 14 years. Some of the small number who do take serious risks in sailing against the winds of the status quo, might question the wisdom of risking another long period of imprisonment against a backdrop of wide indifference. However, every country pays at least lip service to uncommon valour. Wei was released in 1997 and deported to the United States, at President Clinton's request, two weeks after a State visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Courage is a scarce commodity in politics and in 1955, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, attributed to John F. Kennedy, had chronicled acts of bravery and integrity by eight United States Senators. However, it has been claimed that at the time of writing, the then Senator Kennedy, had used the excuse of convalescence from a back operation, to miss the Senate censure vote on Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the land of the two senators' forebears, during the Celtic Tiger period, there is no evidence that any minister opposed the ruinous economic policy and no senior public servant at departmental level or at the Central Bank, thought that the direction of policy making, merited risking their pay and future pension levels.

It's easy to raise red flags, after the events.

The Irish Central Bank should have given more scope than the cloistered public service but there wasn't a public squeak of dissent from anyone there, other than the impotent finger-wagging from the governor, which hardly created even a whimper at the Department of Finance.

Resignation on an issue of principle, would anyway be a strange development in Ireland.

While politics sometimes gives some leeway to the dissenter, business and religious organisations, show zero tolerance. The brand and the leadership cannot be endangered at all costs and even people of probity turn against the whistleblower, as he or she is seen as endangering the livelihoods of everyone else. Family may also provide no comfort, viewing the trade-off of high principle for future income, as unacceptable.

In Ireland, in times past, to leave a religious order was a shame for a family and in West Cork, former nuns were said to seldom venture out and then only to mass, wearing a hooded cloak. In Bandon, when a local boy left an order of brothers before taking vows, it was rumoured that his mother starved him for a week.

Try this for another example of Christianity and it's not hearsay: A discusses with a colleague B in an order, concerns about rumours that the head of the order had been engaged in child abuse in the past. B says he believes the rumours are true. A later has qualms about the conversation because of a vow requiring that any member must report negative comments about the head. B is ordered to leave forthwith.

Last week, the Pope was reported to be "visibly distressed" on hearing of the contents of the Ryan Report on abuse at the Irish industrial school penal system.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger's job was to silence dissent. So over the decades, what tolerance would he have had for whistleblowers?

In times present, across the globe, whistleblowers who feel compelled to expose wrongdoing, are taking extreme risks.

The US Government Accountability Project warns anyone thinking of exposing an employer's wrongdoing: think hard before you do because you are going to suffer. In a book called Courage Without Martyrdom, it warns that whistleblowers "pay an enormous professional and personal price for their actions - often a price they did not anticipate."

The effects will not disappear. "Long after the public has forgotten your courageous actions, your superiors will remember what you did to them," the book says.

Last February, Paul Moore, Head of Group Regulatory Risk at Britain's biggest mortgage lender HBOS, between 2002 and 2005, who was a barrister by profession and a former Partner in KPMG’s Financial Sector Practice in London specialising in regulatory services, told the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee in a written submission, that he and his team experienced threatening behaviours by executives when carrying out its legitimate role.

"I was strongly reprimanded by the CFO for tabling at a Group Audit Committee meeting the full version of a critical report by my department making it clear that the systems and controls, risk management and compliance were inadequate in the Halifax to control its 'over-eager' sales culture," Moore said.

He was fired in 2005 by HBOS and was subsequently paid a substantial sum, in return for signing a "gagging" order. Moore’s replacement as risk manager was a sales manager who had no experience in risk. The appointment was made personally by the CEO and against the wishes of the other directors.

As for life since, Moore commented to the House of Commons committee: "I am still toxic waste now for having spoken out all those years ago!"

As for directors who are in theory representatives of shareholders and responsible for controlling the executive management, even though their legal obligations have increased in recent decades, most boards still comprise crony yesmen.

Appointment usually includes the implied expectation that an individual will not make waves and while the legal obligations have increased in recent decades, the default routine is to go with the flow.

The powerful in politics, business and sports, often show how personal grudges against particular journalists for criticisng them, can be used to cow the rest of the media. “Burning” sources is a hazardous business and the easier option is to “go along” to “get along.” A criticism is likely to be long remembered after the critic has anointed the shallow hero as a legend.

So, even in advanced democracies, the individual who is willing to challenge authority, is taking a risky course.

When senior public servants in secure jobs are unwilling to challenge the status quo and take a principled stand on reckless policy making, what chance has a wage slave in the private sector?

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