Book Review  

Whistleblowing: Toward a New Theory by Kate Kenny

Whistleblowing: Toward a New Theory by Kate Kenny

Kate Kenny uses the theory of affective recognition to analyse why whistleblowers are treated as pariahs within their organisations and even beyond.

But this is no dry academic treatise: at its heart are the compelling stories of men and women who exposed wrongdoing in financial services companies, and the consequences they bore.

The popular conception of a whistleblower is a lone wolf, heroically exposing wrongdoing.

By contrast, the whistleblowers Ms Kenny interviewed for this book were just doing their jobs.

They were paid to ensure their companies complied with the rules, or did not behave recklessly.

They only acquired the label whistleblower when their actions went public, or they sought protection under whistleblowing legislation. 

 

Ms Kenny paints a picture of a financial services industry where rules are gamed, ethics are not discussed and employees fear retaliation if they speak out.

Ms Kenny spells out the consequences for her interviewees: ostracism and bullying by colleagues and loss of job, career and health.

Some were even vilified in the media, portrayed as aberrant troublemakers, even a bit unhinged. The stories were about the individual, not the wrongdoing they exposed. 

While financial services regulation, in the UK at least, is no longer as “light touch” as Ms Kenny describes, her analysis still rings true. Governments want their banks to be globally competitive. Prudential authorities want to see healthy balance sheets.

There is still an unseemly revolving door between regulator and regulated. Banks wield undue lobbying influence.

Ms Kenny argues that this external environment means that whistleblowers are often ignored by regulators, and regulators are slow to react even when they have evidence of egregious behaviour, such as payment protection insurance mis-selling.

Ms Kenny suggests that we are all complicit in the isolation of whistleblowers.

Banking is too complicated to understand fully, yet too bound up in our daily lives. 

We may admire the whistleblowers’ courage, but we also need to maintain faith in the system, so we choose to see them as lone wolves, rather than naive professionals doing a job to protect us.

Ms Kenny concludes that we should view whistleblowing as a social act and take collective responsibility for what happens to those who expose wrongdoing.

Sue Lewis is former chair of the Financial Services Consumer Panel

Published by Harvard University Press