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Speaking out, for better or worse

columns Updated: May 05, 2013 02:34 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

Whistleblowing — going public about wrongdoing in your workplace — takes a lot of moral courage, which is why we quickly make heroes of people who stubbornly stand up for truth in the face of money and muscle (both legal and illegal) of big corporations.

So, in my head, whistleblowing was always a good, selfless thing to do, but a packed audience of leaders from academia, finance and industry at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland this weekend made me reconsider. Everyone doesn’t think so. In a provocative session on ‘Whistleblowing — proof of courage or betrayal’, almost one in five people in the audience polled thought whistleblowing was not good for society. The session had BBC HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur grill Michael Woodford, who was sacked as CEO of camera-maker Olympus within six months of being appointed as its first foreign president after he questioned his company's suspicious transactions worth US $1.7 billion. At St Gallen, as in his book called Exposure: Inside the Olympus Scandal: How I Went from CEO to Whistleblower, he described he went public only after the company board and auditors stubbornly ignored his concerns. Instead of demanding more transparency, asked for his sacking. Despite Japan’s mainstream media ignoring the scam and the Yakuza, The Japanese mafia, appearing to be involved in Olympus’ pay-offs to fictitious Cayman Island companies, Woodford fought back, much like Jeffrey Wigand, who in 1993 blew the whistle on the US tobacco industry withholding the health risks of smoking in a move that inspired a Hollywood film, The Insider, starring Russell Crowe and Dustin Hoffman.

Wigand, a former chief tobacco scientist at Brown and Williamson Tobacco, caught international spotlight in 1996 when he said on the CBS news show ‘60 Minutes’ that the tobacco major Brown & Williamson had intentionally manipulated its tobacco blend to increase nicotine in cigarette to get people addicted.

His coming out led to several lawsuits against five large US tobacco companies, which finally went for a US $368 billion settlement as compensation, the largest in legal history. The lawsuit also forced cigarette companies to hand over incriminating documents relating to research in creating the addictive product and its marketing to young children, who got addicted faster than adults.

When I met Wigand in California in 2000, he said his moment of truth was realising that cigarettes were the only legal product available that was designed killed when used as directed.

“Cigarettes are highly-engineered nicotine-delivery devices, and even the low tar-low nicotine cigarette are not any safer,’’ said the former Brown & Williamson’s research and development vice president, who had joined the company thinking he could make a “safe cigarette”. He soon discovered it could not be done as there was no such thing as a safe cigarette.

“Tobacco companies naturally want to ensure that smokers stay addicted to nicotine and are always looking for ‘replacement smokers’ to fill in for those who die early because of their addiction,” he said. So he went public, even though it led to threats to his life and the collapse of his marriage.

The big differentiator between Woodford and Wigand’s whistleblowing was simply that there were no visible victims in the Olympus case. Some argue Woodford’s whistleblowing reeked of self-righteousness because his decision may have led to people with no knowledge of the company’s murky dealings losing their jobs. In Wigand’s case, tobacco companies were clearly the bad guys marketing a harmful product to people without full disclosure.

Wigand’s decision led to worldwide bans on marketing tobacco to children, smokefree public places and improved labelling of tobacco products, all of which continue to benefit society. Whether the Olympus whistleblowing would lead to more transparency in companies worldwide is not apparent yet, but it’s a start. Sometimes it’s the simple fear of getting caught and exposed that makes people to do the right thing. n sanchitasharma@hindustantimes.com