This week I will address a query from a reader: Which is the right word to describe a person who exposes the wrongdoing or an illegal activity of an individual or a group of people? Please explain it with examples. (Sheela, Guntur)
The word that is used to describe such a person is whistleblower. It can also be written as two words ‘whistle blower’ or as a hyphenated word ‘whistle-blower’. Almost every day we come across the term in the print and electronic media. The act of exposing the misconduct or corrupt practices of an individual or a group or an organisation is called whistleblowing.
What is the origin of these terms? In games such as football and hockey, a referee blows the whistle to indicate foul play. Similarly, the person who raises alarm about someone’s illegal activities is known as a whistleblower. It is used figuratively. It was US civic activist Ralph Nader who popularised and legitimised the term whistleblowing by using it in the title of his book Whistleblowing: The Report of the Conference on Professional Responsibility in 1972.
Does the term have a positive or negative connotation? Since whistleblowers are conscientious activists who bring the wrongdoings of powerful individuals and groups to the public’s attention, they are treated as patriots and heroes. Hence, the term has a positive connotation. The terms informer, rat, nark, stool pigeon, stoolie and snitch have negative connotations as the people who inform against others do so for money or for some personal gains and rewards.
Two well-known whistleblowers are Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden. The WikiLeaks founder is considered a hero by activists across the globe but the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, called Julian Assange “a terrorist”.
Ed Snowden leaked classified information of the National Security Agency to the Guardian in 2013. The documents he leaked led to revelations about US surveillance on phone and internet communications. Those who value free speech consider him a hero but the US government treats him as a villain.
The term whistleblower became very popular after the award-winning film The Whistleblower, directed by Larysa Kondracki, was released in 2010. The movie is based on the story of Kathryn Bolkovac who served as a UN peacekeeper for Dyncorp International in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999. Kathryn discovered a sex trafficking ring facilitated by DynCorp employees. She was fired for attempting to shut down the ring. She leaked the story to the BBC and won a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit against DynCorp.
Here are examples of how the words are used in sentences:
Though there are many defamation cases against the whistleblower, he continues his ‘whistleblowing’ activities.
Whistleblowing is not a crime but a service to humanity.
A book containing a selection of Dr Rayan’s columns is available.
Dr Albert P’ Rayan
is an ELT Resource Person and Professor of English