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When the whistle blows

12 July 2013

I REMEMBER when whistle-blowers, dressed in black, kept order during the game; these days, they make rather more disturbing figures on the pitch of life.

As I write, the American citizen Edward Snowden is seeking political asylum. In a story broken by The Guardian, he has produced evidence to show that the United States National Security Agency routinely accesses the data streams of companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Apple to extract photos, emails, and connection logs that reveal individuals' movements and contacts.

Liberal hackles are predictably raised in outrage; so are other hackles - hackles with a different discomfort.

No one doubts the courage of the whistle-blower. It is unlikely that there will be any financial gain for Mr Snowden; only the unsettling knowledge that the US government will come after him. From now on, safety is relative, and normality of life is over.

He is brave, unquestionably. And, of course, he has carried the flag of individual freedom against the tyranny of the state. Yet, as Professor C. Frederick Alford observes, something niggles at the back of our minds. Humans are tribal beings, and, while society considers whistle-blowers brave in theory, there tends also to be a sense of discomfort with those who break from the tribe.

While we like to see some tribes exposed, we do not wish it for our own. Life is difficult enough on the shifting sands of organisational life without some whistle-blower revealing everything, when really - and this is how the argument goes - it would have been much better dealt with away from the public gaze.

It is not straightforward. I doubt there is a priest in the country who does not know secrets that they hope will never get out. It is not that they are against the truth; simply aware that it needs to be managed, which sounds terrible, but we are doing it all the time. "Here's the truth; but would this be helpful for people to know?" There are many grey areas in the lives of people and organisations where demands for discretion and revelation sit in awkward association.

Our commitment to truth comes and goes. Some want the oil company exposed; some want governments exposed; some want sexual abuse in the Church exposed; but few want their family exposed. Some of the harshest treatment dished out to whistle-blowers comes from within, when people ask their family difficult questions about their past. "Why rake up all those issues now? What's to be gained?"

And perhaps this primal energy drives some political whistle-blowers as they risk everything for the truth. Figures from their past denied them honest words; they won't let it happen again.

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