2012-05-01 Transcript: Gavin MacFadyen on the Importance of WikiLeaks

Gavin MacFadyen is the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism. He spoke on a panel entitled "Dossier WikiLeaks: Italian secrets. By those on the inside" at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, 28 April 2012. Video is available at the IFJ website.

I was a television investigative reporter in London for 25 years and dealt in 100 or more investigative mainstream programs which involved the lives and difficulties of 15 or 16 major whistleblowers, people who gave up a great deal to come to journalists for help to expose what they felt were crimes of conscience, terrible abuses of human rights, and all the rest. Most of the people who came in this period were torturers and murderers financed by governments who had had enough and wanted to speak out, and so we provided the facilities for them to do that.

But what of course was always disturbing was that we had no facility inside our own news organizations and our own news rooms to handle the human consequences, the bad things that almost inevitably happened to these whistleblowers. They'd lose their homes, they'd lose their cars, particularly they'd lose their spouses. It was a never-ending crisis for them. And we had nothing to do except to field the phone calls and offer sympathy, but we had no institutional means of doing it. And that was a frustration I think many of us felt who didn't want to abandon people who'd helped us. But who, in the great press of events, one story after another after another, and you're all the way around the world somewhere else, you couldn't deal with somebody still in Liverpool who'd helped you two years before.

In my case one particular whistleblower was a guy who'd been in the National Front, which is a fascist organization in the north of England, and he worked with me for nine months. The film was very successful. It reduced, I'm proud to say, the vote by 12% across the country after the film went out against the National Front. But this poor guy having talked to us was eventually tracked down over two years and stabbed on the street and he barely survived. And I was actually in California when that happened, and I just couldn't do anything about it other than to speak to the family. But there was no institutional protection. They were kind of abandoned. And so it was always this praying on my conscience, in a sense, that there was nothing that we could really do.

Now, what I think is extraordinary about WikiLeaks is that it was designed as a platform to provide security for these people, to make it possible for them to speak without fear, and to ensure that they could give the information to the public that they felt—and as a matter of conscience—they were obliged to do. And so when I first heard about this in 2007, there was an IT magazine in Britain, and I was reading it and there was some comment in it that said, 'There's a guy in Germany who is doing some very good work trying to build a platform for whistleblowers.' So I tried to find out who this was and nobody would tell me who it was. And eventually somebody said there was a guy called just 'J' and if I contacted this guy called 'J' somehow, he would tell me about this project. So eventually I did through a series of other hackers in London and in France and I was put in touch with him and he was, I wouldn't say he was entirely outgoing at first, because I was an American. But in the end he did tell me about it and I was really impressed that the entire focus of that project was now to provide security for people who wouldn't then be brutalized or victimized and subject to the travails that anybody who stands up against a huge organization is subject to.

The people that I had spoken to, who were whistleblowers, include--I just made a brief list of them--of the 16 that I can talk of, most were military, CIA, medical researchers, congressional and parliamentary researchers, corporate insiders. And towards that end, because of my experience with corporate insiders, in the United States, in Britain, in France, I was a technical adviser on a movie called "The Insider." I don't know if any of you have ever seen that, but it was a story about a tobacco whistleblower in the states who paid a huge personal price for what he did: bullets were placed in his mailbox, he was subjected to horrendous social and medical pressures.

I worked with another whistleblower in General Electric in an analysis of apartheid funding after the collapse of apartheid. And this guy was threatened by General Electric with extraordinary results. They called him into an office and said, "We know who you're talking to," meaning, I guess, us, "and if you continue talking to them tomorrow, your wife will die." And he said, "What do you... my wife!" And they said, "Your wife is on medical insurance provided by this company and if you continue talking to these people, to these journalists, we will remove her medical insurance." And so I was then placed in a position of trying to find within my own company enough resources to cover her insurance, which we did. But had there been WikiLeaks at that time, the whole question would never have arrived. I mean, it never would've emerged in that powerful and awful way. Parenthetically, we did get insurance for the woman and she didn't die. But the man was subjected to horrendous—he had to move across the United States in hiding against this huge corporation, General Electric, and survives to this day. Though sadly he wasn't the object of a motion picture by a famous director, so he's not exactly well-off, as we say.

But that 2007 conversation with Julian Assange changed, in a sense, my own apprehension of what we could do, and I became dedicated, in a sense, to the idea that we had to protect these people. And just towards that end, the powerful effect of what Kristinn [Hrafnsson] and Julian and others did in Iraq was demonstrated to me by the number of families in Iraq who felt a sense of closure now that they knew where their husbands and sons and stuff had been killed on the ground. Because the films that we did for Channel 4 and the work that The Guardian did, even before things got sticky with them, was really wonderful and providing that information to people on the ground and it got to many of them.

So I would say that, in a sense, I won't talk any more about the background because I'm sure many of you know that, but the consequences were really extraordinary. But, I have to say, it still is not widespread and WikiLeaks is bombarded with difficulties as it is, by enormous financial pressures that have been illegally brought against them by the credit card companies and a couple of banks, which have been devastating in their potential consequences, at least, convinced me that we should set up another whistleblowers organization which, I'll just tell you briefly, we've just set up in London. So we've set up—until WikiLeaks gets back up totally on its feet, which we hope will be very fast—we've set up a national organization of whistleblowers in England to provide pro bono legal help, psychological counseling, personal advice to many people because they don't know what to do when the pressures start, and the pressures drive many to suicide, and other difficulties. And so far we've got a number of people: we've got 8 financial whistleblowers from the Royal Bank of Scotland, from HBOS, and Citibank; we have 7 medical people; and 2 military and security people, including a British Army colonel who just left, a few months ago, Saudi Arabia, having blown the whistle on an enormously corrupt arms deal done by the British, which was 38 billion pounds. And he's in some fear of what the results will be. But the reason, of course, they were in those difficulties, is that WikiLeaks was not available to them then. And we're obviously extremely keen for WikiLeaks to get back in a position where it can offer that support again.

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