Whistleblowers and watchdog organizations are important to the functioning of a democratic society, a panel of speakers at the Conference on World Affairs argued Wednesday at CU Boulder.
The panel, titled “Watchdogs, Whistleblowers and Wikileaks,” was moderated by Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall and featured Karuna Jaggar, Gabrielle Appleby and Joe Sexton. The panelists discussed the roles and importance of the three topics and answered audience questions.
Jaggar is the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based watchdog organization that monitors the breast cancer movement for conflicts of interest. She said their organization looks for “what’s missing” and the gaps in what breast cancer nonprofits are advocating, and tries to be a neutral party that gives women unbiased information about their health.
As a feminist health organization, Jaggar said BCA strives to be “soft on the people and hard on the system” and that her advice for seeking out corruption was to “follow the money.”
Gabrielle Appleby is a law professor from the University of New South Wales who specializes in government ethics. She spoke about the role of whistleblowers in the government, and said she believes they are important for keeping the government accountable and for helping watchdog organizations know what they need to investigate.
She also advocated for more protections for whistleblowers, who can become endangered if they expose corruption. Australia currently has far fewer protections for whistleblowers than the United States, and people who publish any information they obtained while working for the government can be jailed. However, Appleby said that she isn’t in favor of complete government transparency — she thinks that governments need secrecy in order to make good decisions.
Joe Sexton, senior editor of the non-profit investigative outlet ProPublica and former New York Times reporter, spoke about the press’s role in whistleblowing. He cited recent examples, like the Panama Papers, the information WikiLeaks’ released during the election about the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Donald Trump dossier citing connections to Russia, to talk about the issue.
He said that journalists have to walk a fine line when deciding whether to publish information received by whistleblowers that cannot be independently verified. He said the Trump dossier was an especially good example of that because when news outlets were first publishing the dossier, much of it had yet to be confirmed, and that he would err on the side of waiting for verification.
During the Q&A section, the panelists discussed topics including whether journalists should divulge their identities, how the increase in job contracting is affecting whistleblower protections and how to evaluate whether a whistleblower is reliable or acting due to bias.
“The journalist’s role is not to judge the whistleblower, but to make responsible choices about what the whistleblower has put in front of you,” Sexton said.
Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Carina Julig at firstname.lastname@example.org.