It takes a special event to get three whistleblowers such as Dougal Watt , Paul van Buitenen and Marta Andreasen on the same podium. That event was Whistleblowing and Institutional Accountability , at the International Press Centre in Brussels, on 30 September 2004, an initiative prompted by members of the NUJ Brussels branch.
The main speakers were not primarily there to air their grievances, but rather to demand greater assistance for anyone who found themselves in a similar situation in the future. They had all put public duty ahead of career prospects and, introducing the event, the IFJ’s Aidan White said the imminent arrival of the new Commission meant that the time was right for a fundamental review of whistleblowing procedures. The NUJ’s Jeremy Woolfe concurred, saying that EU’s citizens had had their indulgence stretched too far.
Kicking off, van Buitenen explained that whistleblowing aimed to reveal “structural abuses”. He had words of warning though, saying that experience had shown that the power was on the employers’ side and that whistleblowers should not expect the truth to be revealed without a fight.
Looking to the future, van Buitenen saw progress in the US – with its Government Accountability Project and in the UK – with the Public Interest Disclosure Act. He thought that elements of these two agencies might be used to develop a European Legislative Agency.
Watt then explained the labyrinthine procedures that linked the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee (COCUBU) and the European Court of Auditors (CoA). For him, they were three bodies that each had legislative WMDs that could destroy the other two. This lead to a situation, according to Watt, where, “The more serious the abuse, the less likely it is to be properly audited, properly investigated, and properly discussed by COCOBU.”
As for how Andreasen’s case had been handled, she said it was abhorrent that OLAF reports to the European Commission and worse, it was incredible that the same Commissioner was responsible for OLAF and the budget. Andreasen saw nothing but cosmetic changes – both to the budget systems that she had so severely criticised and to the European Commission’s procedures, many of which had been revised so that responsibility was spread far and wide – such that it hardly existed at all.
In the Q&A that followed, Watt took the opportunity to lambast the European Ombudsman’s office7, saying that its handling of his file had been “a disgrace”. After he had delivered the file, with the accusations, to the Ombudsman’s office, the process had not even led to the CoA being asked to respond to the charges.
Prompted by White’s comment that at least the whistleblowing had led to an internal review of procedures at the Commission, van Buitenen declared that the whistleblowing facilitation procedures put in place by Commissioner Kinnock were “almost a criminal offence” as they were “fundamentally wrong and deliberately did not work”.
To end the debate, White asked the main speakers to make suggestions as to how the process could be moved forward. Andreasen wanted the European institutions to have more independence, while van Buitenen demanded a reform of the institutions that went further than the current smokescreen and could guarantee that structural abuses would be disclosed.
It was just left to Watt to call for journalists to develop closer contacts with Commission officials so that the story that was told was more than just “the official agenda that was usually pumped out”. And in some way, perhaps this event – a collaboration of several journalists’ groups – was a small but meaningful start.
Â© John Chapman 2004. All rights reserved.
1 Dougal Watt made public his allegations of high-level corruption in the EU court of Auditors and was sacked in May 2003.
2 Paul van Buitenen’s allegations of fraud and mismanagement within the Commission led to the resignation of Jacques Santer and other commissioners, in 1998. He was disciplined, later resigned and is now an MEP.
3 Marta Andreasen was suspended from her post as the European Commission’s chief accountant after she alleged that serious weaknesses existed in accounting procedures. She refused to sign off the 2001 accounts. She is currently awaiting a verdict on he future.
4 The meeting was organised by the Journalists@YourService (JAYS) coalition of journalists’ groups, including the IFJ, NUJ Brussels, the Brussels foreign correspondents group, API, the European Journalism Centre and the International Press Centre.
5 The Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability through advancing occupational free speech and ethical conduct, defending whistleblowers, and empowering citizen activists. – http://www.whistleblower.org/
6 Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, an Act which protects workers who ‘blow the whistle’ about wrongdoing. Disclosures in the public interest
7 According to its website – http://www.euro-ombudsman.eu.int/ – The European Ombudsman investigates complaints about maladministration by institutions and bodies of the European Union.