Focus on: Whistleblowing in the 21st Century

Blowing the whistle
By Alistair Millar, Lecturer

20 April 2016

We examine how whistleblowing should be conducted in the correct circumstances and through appropriate channels.

TPE student members who have completed Business Ethics 2 will have spent time discussing whistleblowing and the related UK legislation (Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998). We recap on the associated technical information and proposed changes to the law.


In the UK, whistleblowers must:

  • Act in good faith;
  • Follow appropriate internal procedures;
  • Have evidence; and
  • Not be rewarded.


When we think about whistleblowing examples in recent years, we often make reference to the likes of Edward Snowdon and Chelsea Manning, who publicly released information. Specifically, these are famous cases where internal procedures were not followed.

Whereas whistleblowing should be encouraged in the right circumstances, the correct channels must be followed in order to obtain the protection of UK legislation.

You may have also read about the Trade Secrets Protection Act, which we will consider alongside the current UK requirement. The 'Trade Secrets' Act is currently being debated in the European Parliament and a petition has been organised to amend proposed legislation additions.

Technical Information

In the UK, PIDA lists its ‘qualifying disclosures’, that is, disclosures made through whistleblowing that are protected by law:

  • a)  a criminal offence has been committed, is being committed or is likely to be committed;
  • b)  a person has failed, is failing or is likely to fail to comply with any legal obligation to which they are subject;
  • c) a miscarriage of justice has occurred, is occurring or is likely to occur;
  • d)  the health or safety of any individual has been, is being or is likely to be endangered;
  • e)  the environment has been, is being or is likely to be damaged; or
  • f)    the concealment of any of the above.

A whistleblower must be acting in good faith, must have evidence to support their claim and must follow the firm’s internal procedures for reporting. Providing that the correct procedures have been followed, whistleblowers are offered the full protection of the UK law with regards compensation for dismissal and/ or victimisation.

External disclosure is only appropriate if the whistleblower believes that they are unsafe to make internal disclosure and if they have a higher degree of evidence. External disclosures may be to the police, Members of Parliament or, most appropriately, the relevant industry or governmental regulator.

The media may be an option for external disclosure, however, any reward given for whistleblowing immediately negates any legal protection and, therefore, only then may whistleblowers be prosecuted.

Summary of case and outcome

The aim of the proposed new Trade Secrets Protection Act is to protect companies from industrial espionage – employees or competitors attempting to share or steal commercially important trade secrets. Similar legislation in the US currently imposes custodial sentences of up to 15 years.

This is a clear deterrent to publicly releasing trade secrets, selling trade secrets for personal reward, or releasing trade secrets though other inappropriate internal or external channels.

The bill is being met with opposition, as commentators are concerned that whistleblowing may be framed as the sharing of trade secrets and so will result in prosecution of the very people who, in the UK, should be protected.

Learning outcome

In the UK, whistleblowers must:

  • Act in good faith;
  • Follow appropriate internal procedures;
  • Have evidence; and
  • Not be rewarded.

Providing that the UK can incorporate directives while keeping their key principles, whistleblowers should still keep the same level of protection – regardless of whether or not the company in question deems it to relate to ‘trade secrets’.


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