The term whistleblower brings to mind breaking-news stories of world polraising impact. But most cases of whistleblowing never make international headlines. In Italy, 783 people came forward last year alone to report new cases and the damage caused by corruption is estimated at €100 billion annually. In Never Whistle Alone director Marco Ferrari put seven Italian whistleblowers of workplace corruption in front of the camera to tell us the personal side of their stories. Shown for the first time in Berlin on August 12 at ACUD Macht Neu (it premiered at DOK Leipzig), Ferrari’s documentary marks the retuirn to live events of the excellent digital rights panel series Disruption Network Lab. The screening will be followed by a discussion on whistleblowing protection in Italy and the EU.
How would you define whistleblowing? What is the difference between informing and whistleblowing?
I think that one of the main differences is that informants are often anonymous. As a whistleblower, even if you are initially anonymous, eventually your name will be revealed, either in the press or in legal proceedings. This is for a very simple reason: Whistleblowers are reporting something very specific which is related to their job so they are easily identifiable.
Whistleblowers are often motivated to come forward because they have a fundamental interest in common good. As an informant you want to share information, but it isn’t necessarily out of moral obligation. The issues that whistleblowers report, such as financial corruption and fixed hiring, are often dangerous or have negative consequences for wider society. One of the things that those I interviewed had in common was a passion for their work. Whistleblowers want to have an active role in society and their companies, they care about their jobs being carried out with integrity.
You cannot trust the police but at the end of the day, you still have to have some faith in the system otherwise you will be alone.
You interviewed many whistleblowers in the process of making your film. Why did you choose to portray these seven stories in particular?
We decided to focus particularly on cases that were in an advanced stage of trial or had concluded. This was for two reasons: Firstly, we did not want to be speculative, we wanted to tell stories that had been factually confirmed. The second reason was to ensure that the protagonist had a full understanding of their own story. Personal perspectives shift during the experience of whistleblowing. We wanted to be mindful of this.
Were there whistleblowers who refused to take part in the documentary?
Definitely. The first was a former football player who had been asked to fix matches. Similarly, a journalist who discovered financial fraud inside his own newspaper. I saw this as a missed opportunity as it was a completely different field of work from the other whistleblowers we had interviewed. We had also spoken to an internal auditor from a public train company who had reported illegal administrative expenses. This case was particularly special as the whistleblower was very young. Even though I was not able to include these stories, they helped me to recognise the patterns in the whistleblowing experience
The documentary has a unique format, as it dramatises the whistleblowers’ indvidual experiences as one collective story. What inspired your decision to tell all these stories as one?
I made this decision later on in the process. When I began my research, I was looking for only one story. My intention was to find the most spectacular or exciting story and use it as a metaphor for the entire system. But then, I started interviewing and meeting different people, and the more people I spoke to, the more I found that similarities could be drawn between all of their stories. After I had met 10 or 12 whistleblowers we said, okay, we don’t need one single story, maybe we should focus on creating a collective story. This was the turning point at which I realised that dramatisation would be the best way to tell a collective story.
Why do you think that your whistleblowers had such similar experiences?
Because the process is always the same, it is the story of the common person fighting against a larger system. Whether you are talking about a bank, a football team or public administration – the personal side of the story is always the same.
In the documentary the police are portrayed as an institution that supports whistleblowers in telling their story. But the police are also known to be corrupt?
Once you are involved in whistleblowing the police are still the safest way to deal with the situation. You cannot trust the police but at the end of the day, you still have to have some faith in the system otherwise you’ll be alone. You can try different paths, for example blowing the whistle with the media. But once you are faced with a legal battle with the organisation you have spoken against, you will inevitably have to interact with the police and legal system.
I don’t want to imply that the Mafia does not operate today, but the criminal system of the Mafia does not exist as it once used to. Today personal greed is more prevalent.
At the end of the documentary, the employees who share their experiences are shown setting up a support group for people who have witnessed corruption. What supportive role do you think workers organisations and trade unions can play in the process of whistleblowing?
What I have been told by the whistleblowers I have interviewed, is that trade unions in Italy don’t often support whistleblowers. This could be because they are playing a political role and don’t want to lose power and sour relations with companies. When whistleblowers realise that they are alone, they often try to spread their story by themselves. If they are successful in this they are often able to raise awareness within a more local community. I think for whistleblowers, the support of local people and a community is more crucial than the support of trade unions. Often the whistleblowers who don’t have this close support network become overwhelmed and isolated in their own stories.
Modern capitalism individualises the working experience. It encourages competition amongst employees, ascension of workplace hierarchy and the pursuit of personal wealth. Do you think this structure lends itself to corruption?
Absolutely. In the last few decades we have had a change in the style of Italian corruption. Until the 1990s, corruption was related almost entirely to the Mafia and Italian political system. This meant that corrupt people who were part of these systems were sourcing money primarily to fund and maintain a wider network of corruption, personal greed was secondary. Nowadays, it’s quite different, people are often trying to source money for themselves or a small network. I don’t want to imply that the Mafia does not operate today, but the criminal system of the Mafia does not exist as it once used to. Today there are more cases of local corruption in smaller municipal sectors and social circles. Personal greed is more prevalent.
Never Whistle Alone Screening and Panel Aug 12, 20:00, Acud Macht Neu, Mitte