Whistleblowing – an odd name

Last year I decided to look at security more from a defensive angle and switched jobs. I work in a team of Internal Investigators now analyzing fraud, corruption and bribery. It is well known that most inquiries start with a tip usually from an insider. Since many of such insiders fear for their job security or retaliation, they want to remain anonymous and thus use where possible anonymity to report an issue, e.g. via an anonymous tip hotline.

This process is called whistleblowing, which is an odd name and begs to be analyzed. Where does it come from? Whistleblowing is a naval term. Somebody who blows the whistle used to be one of the ship’s mates tasked to warn his ship as well as other ships of danger. So in case of bad weather or lack of attention, a whistleblower would warn if obstacles are in the ship’s way or the ship is on a collision course and blow his whistle accordingly.

However, whistleblowing to report an issue of non-compliance has some strange attributes. The farther removed people are from a whistleblower, the more respected, even admired, he or she is. But the closer people are this admiration is inverse reciprocal or in other terms people closer to a whistleblower do not like them, even despise them. Where whistleblower speak up and point out an issue, they unfortunately remind others of not having done that.

Worse then when you’re depicted as “[…] one man’s whistleblower is another man’s spy.”, as Barton Gellman quotes former Director of US National Intelligence, James Clapper, in his new book Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State.

Also whistleblowers feel at odds with themselves. They clearly see the necessity to say something, but they don’t wish to “dirty the nest” (Nestbeschmutzer in German). The English term whistleblower sounds rather positive, but if you try to find a corresponding term in my mother tongue German, it gets tricky.

Even the term “Hinweisgeber” is not neutral. Literally translated it means “tip giver”, but given the history with internal security agencies in Nazi Germany (Gestapo) or Eastern Germany (Stasi) Germans tend to have their difficulties with someone who gives a tip…

Other terms border on the lurid and have a negative connotation, e.g. “Skandalaufdecker” = scandal revealer.

To raise acceptance of whistleblowing it is high time that we find a more suitable term in my native tongue, German that sounds more neutral and positive. Maybe “WahrschaugeberIn” is a better term. Also derived from naval language, “wahrschauen” means to look for danger when aboard a ship and to give a corresponding warning when danger is imminent. This is probably the equivalent to the English whistle blower and it sounds much better in my German ears. Albeit it is only a first step into making whistleblowing less awkward and more accepted.


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