Whistleblowers on Film. By Frankie Wallace.
We would all like to believe that the world is fair and that governments and businesses have our best interests in mind. However, this isn’t always the case. Unethical behavior is an all-too-common feature of our landscape. What makes this worse is that unethical actions are often encouraged and shielded. Sometimes this is through a culture of solidarity, at others, the potential whistleblowers are discouraged by the threat of retaliation.
This is why it is so important that we treat whistleblowers with the respect and protection they deserve. These people dare to put their livelihoods, reputations, and — at times — lives on the line to speak out against unethical practices.
We’re going to take a look at productions that tell the stories of whistleblowers. What issues have their subjects brought to light? How do these movies and documentaries help us to discover issues and make meaningful changes?
The documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013) gives us a glimpse into one of the most high-profile cases of this in recent years. Chelsea Manning is depicted as the real hero of the situation, risking more than almost any other participant. Manning served 7 years of a 35-year sentence for the leaks and was then returned to prison for refusing to testify against Wikileaks.
The movie, Snowden (2016) also depicts one of America’s most high profile whistleblowers, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone, it traces Snowden’s life from his basic training in the U.S. Army, through to his eventual exile to Russia. The production explores the various examples of governmental corruption Snowden experienced during his time with the CIA and NSA, and the unethical practices employed against even the allies of the U.S.
However, it is the corrupt actions of those government representatives who are tasked with protecting us can have the biggest impact upon us. Crime + Punishment (2018) explores how 12 cops of color in New York city fought against the quota system in their police department. The practice put pressure on police officers from minority backgrounds to issue a specific number of arrests against Black and other minority communities each month. Yet, whistleblowers in law enforcement are few and far between. Corrupt incidents such as shootings and racially motivated violence are often suppressed by the Blue Code of Silence. It’s a toxic culture that places a duty for police officers to look out for one another, even when their actions are unethical or illegal. It also means that there are few protections for those who seek to break that code and report incidents.
The Panama Papers was the biggest data leak in history and saw 11.5 million files handed by an anonymous whistleblower to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The files revealed how wealthy entrepreneurs and officials exploited offshore tax havens, and 12 world leaders were among those implicated. The Laundromat (2019) tells the tale through the lens of a comedy-drama. However, it doesn’t focus on the John Doe whistleblower, but rather on how varied the approaches to money laundering and fraud utilized were. More importantly, it shines a light on how the corrupt actions of the wealthy tend to impact the lives of the working classes. Yes, there are moments of comedy and drama, but it’s also a valuable insight into wealth inequality.
Unfortunately, there are also examples in business of whistleblowers who have themselves also acted in financially unscrupulous ways. The Informant! (2009) gives a slightly eccentric and comedic account of Mark Whitacre’s time informing for the FBI. Whitacre was vice president of a bioproducts division in the food processing industry and agreed to wear a wire to expose high-level price-fixing. However, it was later revealed that while he was informing for the government, Whitacre embezzled $9.5 million from the company.
This movie also shows just how important it is for executives in business to consider how their actions have wide-reaching effects on their company and their own reputations. After all, their reputations have the potential to influence investment and affect the lives of all employees. As such, there is increasing emphasis placed on how they must match the overriding company values, and focus on ethical behavior.
Whistleblowers aren’t only instrumental in exposing high-level corruption, they can also play a key role in making meaningful social and cultural change. Picture Me: A Model’s Diary (2011) shone a light on some of the most toxic practices models are subjected to in the fashion industry. Following model Sara Ziff, it explored not only how prevalent eating disorders, drugs, and sexual harassment are in fashion, but also how the industry enables, and in many ways, supports destructive behavior.
Documentaries such as this not only highlight how dangerous the industry is to models but are also an example of the myriad ways in which fashion projects unhealthy standards and expectations onto consumers. We are seeing more examples of this, too. There have been recent revelations that Target, among others, have been utilizing photoshop in unethical ways to alter the appearance of models. The more we examine the cumulative and far-reaching consequences of these actions, the more we can see how alterations in behavior and business practices could make a positive cultural impact.
One of the most significant social issues exposed through whistleblowers as of late has been through the #MeToo movement. While it began with a focus on Hollywood, it has been more valuable in revealing how sexual harassment is endemic throughout multiple industries. The documentary On the Record (2020) examines allegations of sexual assault by hip hop music mogul Russell Simmons. While it looks at the accusations, it also reveals the rollercoaster of experiences whistleblowers go through. We see one of its primary sources, A&R executive Drew Dixon, wrestle with whether she should come forward and deal with the press and the aftermath. It’s a stark reminder of the courage exhibited and hardships faced by those who are seeking to reveal corruption.
Whistleblowers help us to see the dark side of the world we live in. Movies and documentaries are key mediums to help spread the word and allow us to examine the facts and the consequences. For the work of both whistleblowers and filmmakers to be worthwhile, we must each take responsibility for using their information to make meaningful changes.
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