Heroes or villains: On the origins of the phrase 'whistleblower'

Once used to describe a snitch, the phrase was reclaimed in the 1970s by civil rights leaders

Heroes or villains: On the origins of the phrase 'whistleblower'

Penalty points whistleblower and former garda John Wilson | Photocall file photo

In the wake of the latest whistle-blowing controversy to rock the core of an Garda Síochána, which has seen Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan deny any knowledge of involvement in an alleged campaign against a whistleblower in the force, it seems timely to examine the origins of the word.

One thing, at least, is clear; when it comes to the English language, there is no shortage of phrases or idiomatic terms that make direct reference to whistling. As everyone from Steve onwards knows, the act of putting your lips together and blowing looms large in the linguistic repertoire of the English-speaking world. Ornamentation becomes ‘bells and whistles’, while attaining a similar level of cleanliness to the device, despite it being something riddled with spittle and covered in grubby fingerprints, is something we should all aspire to. Or if you’re content to wallow in misery and filth, wet your whistle instead.

Whistleblowers are people who, aware of something they believe to be morally or criminally wrong, alert and superiors’ attention to that issue. If they fail in that attempt and the problem, as they perceive it, warrants further attention, the whistleblower could choose to go public. These anti-establishment truth tellers have existed long before we had a specific term for them, with the phrase whistleblower a relatively young invention.

Nóirín O'Sullivan (L) and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald (R) | File photo: RollingNews.ie

In a literal sense, ‘whistleblower’ could be applied to any number of actions before it took on its current ideological meaning. For sure, throughout history, there have been plenty of reasons why people blew into pipe of some sort, from falconers ‘whistling down the wind’ while their birds of prey took flight on the hunt to sailors whistling for a wind to steer their ship out of its becalmed peril. The first official profession to employ a whistle as a device, rather aptly for the current climate in Ireland, was the police force, who blew liberally into their own to attract attention to wrongdoing. The practice began late in the 19th century, when bobbies on the beat in Victorian Britain would alert good citizens to help in the apprehension of street urchins picking pockets and mournfully wondering about the location of love in song.

We know the practice crossed the pond and was adopted by American police around the same time, although from the sounds of this 1883 report from the Janesville Gazette, it may just have been the capacious lungs of an Irish emigrant rather than a stainless steel fife that prevented an all-out riot: Quiet was restored upon the arrival of the regular police force, and ere the town clock had struck the midnight hour all had returned to their homes. But the crowd of people were all willing to bet that McGinley was the champion whistle blower in America.

The modern allusion of blowing a whistle to shrieking the truth in the face of adversity can be traced to the 1960s, though it is worth noting that it carried a largely pejorative sense; one of the earliest examples in print are in newspaper reports covering the My Lai Massacre, a watershed moment in the history of modern American combat and a turning point in the public perception of the Vietnam War. A terrible chapter in American history, GIs entered a village in the morning of March 16th 1968, and a few hours later had raped, tortured, and killed as many as 504 civilians, women and children included.

The story was brought to the American public by Ronald Ridenhour, a helicopter gunner who heard of the massacre from friends and gathered eyewitness and participant accounts from other soldiers while on active duty. Upon returning to the US, Ridenhour sent the material to members of Congress and Pentagon officials, launching an official investigation. At the same time, the press, still referring to My Lai as an “alleged massacre” or “incident,” dismissed the solider as have ulterior motives and wishing to cash in on the scoop.

This ‘whistle-blower’,” wrote on newspaper in Oklahoma, “Has turned out to be a clever member of the anti-war faction which has been using the alleged misconduct of a few GIs to slander the American Army.

Lt William Calley would go on to be convicted in the ensuing court martial for his leadership on that day in Vietnam, with President Nixon reducing his sentence to two years house arrest.

As such, it wasn’t until the 1970s that a definitional shift occurred in our understanding of the phrase. Ralph Nader, the American political activist, in a sense reclaimed the word before we understood what that even meant, trying to turn the tide on what was considered ‘snitching’ or being ‘a rat’ into a noble exercise, worthy of respect and admiration. In 1972, Nader described it as “an act of a man or a woman who, believing in the public interest, overrides the interest of the organisation he serves, publicly [blowing] the whistle if the  organisation is involved in corrupt, illegal, fraudulent or harmful activity.”

Which is how we end up where we are today in Ireland, albeit now left wondering if the current case of whistle blowing, about the harassment of whistleblowers, is too meta as to require a new term all for itself. Whistle woeing, perhaps?

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