How to Whistleblow, and Keep your Sanity, Friends and Career

How to Whistleblow and Keep your Sanity, Friends and Career

Mar 11, 2021

Written by Nicholas Martin

Nick Martin is a GP in regional NSW. In 2019, he won the Blueprint international prize for whistleblowing after speaking out about the treatment of refugees on Nauru.

As a doctor who spoke out against deliberate medical neglect of asylum seekers and refugees, Dr Nick Martin shares his experiences on whistleblowing unethical systemic issues.

I’m a GP working in NSW. I worked in Nauru from November 2016-July 2017 as the Senior Medical Officer for IHMS, the company appointed by the Australian government to treat asylum seekers and refugees being held on Nauru. My reasons for taking the job in the first place were varied. I have a personal connection to the island, my grandfather had been a doctor on Nauru during the Second World War and was killed there. I also wanted to expand what I was doing as a GP and I wanted to see for myself how offshore processing worked in reality. I spoke out soon after I realised that the whole system was designed to abrogate responsibility and deny patients the care they needed.  I have been involved with refugees since then, trying to advocate for their timely access to medical care, and speaking out against the dreadful way the government treats those who tried to come to Australia in search of safety. 

If you find yourself in a similar situation—one where you can see a systemic failure, an organisational culture that jars with your basic sense of decency, at some point you’re going to have to decide whether to accept your role in the organisation or to speak out. I would argue that organisations rely on people’s passivity; that speaking out, or whistleblowing will be seen as all too hard, with the potential downsides far outweighing any good intentions. But speaking out is possible and I wanted to share my experiences to offer advice if you choose to do the same.

Why whistleblow? Why put your head above the parapet for anyone to take a shot at you? Why bother? The answers will be deeply personal and nobody else will know the real reasons— which may be multiple. I would suggest that if you’re working in a toxic organisation, sooner or later you have to accept that the longer you stay in that organisation, the more you are enabling it. Many people, when confronted with this realisation, decide to simply leave. That’s fine; if you can leave with your dignity intact, the sense of relief from having the gumption to go will hopefully reaffirm that you have prioritised your own mental health and in some cases safety.

From my experience in speaking out there are some typical human behaviors to be aware of. I noticed, when I was working on Nauru, that in a meeting of say, twenty people, when a situation came up that seemed dangerous— once again Australian Border force refused to transfer a very sick refugee to Australia for treatment against the face of all medical advice— the reactions of people in the room followed a predictable pattern. Now the person had deteriorated to such an extent that the new argument was given that he was now too far gone to be treated effectively in Australia, and so now was ineligible to be transferred because he was too ill.

Out of the twenty people, fifteen would remain silent. Two would raise the idiocy of the situation and be vocal about it, and three would try and find a different angle of attack to get the patient the care he evidently needed.

Out of the twenty people, fifteen would remain silent. Two would raise the idiocy of the situation and be vocal about it, and three would try and find a different angle of attack to get the patient the care he evidently needed. 

The two who were vocal would have their cards marked by the organisation for rocking the boat or stating the inconvenient truth. At some point their contracts would be terminated or simply not renewed. The three who tried a different tactic would be further discouraged when that too was stonewalled. Sooner or later they would either leave, demoralised, or stay, but no longer willing to fight for the patient, demoralised and silenced in the face of an unyielding, inhumane stance from the government. The fifteen others would sit passively, either feeling unable to speak up through fear of losing their job, through a genuine disinterest in the fate of their patients, or a feeling that this was not a fight worth having; that they were merely pawns in a much bigger game. Some chose to stay and fight within the system for their patients; they made a choice to do their best in the face of adversity; they are the silent heroes.

Speaking out is not an easy option, even if you believe it is the right one. However, there are ways to mitigate any adverse side effects of speaking out. I would recommend doing the following:

  1. Seek legal advice. The lawyers at the National Justice Project gave me reassurance that I was not the only one who felt like this, and that I would not be prosecuted. Doctors have also fought and won legal battles to overturn laws that would have meant that doctors and other workers would be prosecuted for raising concerns about dangerous or inhumane situations in offshore detention facilities. 
  2. Find a friend or family member who you are prepared to take criticism and advice from. Whistleblowing can be a lonely prospect, and self doubt a constant companion. Being able to bounce ideas around so you don’t end up in an echo chamber of virtue is massively important.
  3. Remember that many people will genuinely not care a damn about your experiences and what you have to say, don’t take it to heart. People have enough going on in their lives and many simply won’t want to know about your drama. They may listen for a moment, and much like the news cycle, something else will come along that will grab their attention.
  4. Find a journalist who you feel comfortable with; one who isn’t just after a quick headline to sell some more copy. There are many journalists who have been amazing in championing the causes of people who feel they need to speak out; whether they are people being bullied by a system, mistreated or abused, or have witnessed unacceptable behaviour that is being systematically hushed up. I corresponded for some time with journalists where we built up a mutual trust and agreed on what would be the most important points to highlight, and how people’s privacy could be protected.
  5. Don’t become the story if you can possibly help it. Journalists often want a human interest angle to a story, to hook a reader's attention. If that has to be you, you could well be in for more scrutiny than you ever wanted. If it’s a patient, they may not want to be used as a  convenient stick to pursue a political aim. Be cognizant of your position, the power dynamics at play and the vulnerability of your patient.  
  6. No matter how you initially see your concerns, the end result will always be political. If an organisation is toxic, if a policy is morally wrong, if a culture of bullying exists, if there is chronic underfunding— these all have political overlays and will be gladly seized upon by people who don’t really care about what you care about, and are simply looking for an excuse to bash the political system seen to be behind it. Your message will be used as long as it is useful and newsworthy, and then consigned to the spectacularly short memory of the news cycle.
  7. Self Care. The whole process can place big strains on your mental health. Often you are speaking out against a system that may try to discredit you and your background as a way of making the accusations more about a disgruntled ex-employee or portray you as an unreliable witness. You need to nurture a support network of trusted people to keep yourself grounded, and as a sounding board when you are attacked on social media or in print by people with opposing views to you.
  8. Have an escape plan in place. If you’re thinking about speaking out against a person, a department or a larger system, the power imbalances at play against you may result in you feeling your position is no longer tenable. I lined up some locums so that I could remain relatively anonymous. I made sure any social media accounts were sufficiently locked down to stop trolls having a field day. I was privileged as a white, middle-aged heterosexual English speaking male who was not trying to get on a training program or in a training program; the issues I faced pale into comparison with those who are none of the above and receive hugely disproportionate levels of abuse from trolls. People will feel a need to attack you as an easy target, or to deflect attention from activities that they have been complicit in or agree with. You can take an amount of power back by deciding who in the media you will speak to, and whether or not to engage with people whose main motivation is to deflect from the issue you have raised, and to make it about you.

 

Finally I would say this- “ To thine own self be true.” You may have to answer to many people who will be variously hostile, supportive or merely intrigued, but every night you have to answer to yourself. Did you do the right thing? If you can answer “yes” then you will sleep well.

 

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