By Mia Marzotto, TSN Whistleblower Protection Program Manager
Popular cinema and TV have long been fascinated by the figure of the whistleblower. It’s not hard to find listicles of “the top X best movies/shows about whistleblowers.” Some are fictional, some are not.
One of the latest in this subgenre is “Fool Me Once,” a British thriller series released this month on Netflix.
Spoiler alert: The story centers around the main character, Maya Stern, trying to figure out who killed her husband. It also involves a character referred to as “Corey the Whistle,” who releases online incriminating footage of Maya killing innocent civilians while serving in the army abroad, causing a military scandal and forcing her to step down from her post. Later on, Corey provides Maya with information about her husband’s family pharmaceutical company, which he believes to be involved in illegal actions.
Corey is a side character in the show but is notably portrayed as a rowdy blogger with hacking skills who lives between a shady arcade and a hidden cabin in the woods. This did not go unnoticed by members of our whistleblower support team — as well as, it’s safe to assume, many other viewers.
So what’s the issue? While Corey’s storyline is fictional, it presents his actions negatively and wrongly assimilates them to whistleblowing.
Firstly, Corey is not a whistleblower who revealed information of wrongdoing he learned through his job or legal activities. On the simplest level, a whistleblower is someone who, for the greater good, reports information about fraud, abuse, corruption, or risks to public health or safety.
A whistleblower is typically an employee of the public or private organization where the wrongdoing is taking place, but may also be an external consultant or partner who acquires the information through their capacity and decides to expose it. Instead, Corey receives tips through his blog, hacks other people’s computers and then publishes the information he finds. At best, he is an investigative journalist. More likely he is a hacker. He is not a whistleblower in the traditional sense.
Secondly, Corey’s profile focuses on the cost of revealing the truth as personal and social annihilation. The takeaway seems to be clear – don’t follow his example. But is that really a message we want to send? While we may want to discourage hacking, as a society, we should celebrate those who speak out about wrongdoing to the benefit of all of us. Being “a whistle” shouldn’t be something to be shunned, which is why Corey’s nickname is so problematic.
Those who speak out in real life about wrongdoing often suffer retaliation – both by the organization implicated in the wrongdoing and by society at large. Journalists across the world in the past year have also been targeted for their work, many times in an attempt to force them to reveal their sources.
At The Signals Network, we work with whistleblowers daily — many of whom are working with journalists to expose wrongdoing, and all of whom take great risks to expose the truth for the greater good. Their actions and achievements deserve to be understood and celebrated, including in popular cinema and TV. We shouldn’t portray them — fictionally or otherwise — as characters to be shunned from society.
We hope for more movies or shows such as All the President’s Men and Erin Brokovich that highlight the heroes that whistleblowers are: people who uncover wrongdoing and help society hold those responsible accountable. These portrayals would help the public embrace whistleblowing as an important contribution to transparency, which in turn would encourage improved, effective legal protections for those who come forward about critical issues of public concern. Whistleblowers’ stories are key to a more informed and fair society. They are the modern-day superheroes.
Until then, anyone portraying whistleblowing — or purported whistleblowing — on screen should do their part in helping create a culture where whistleblowers are valued and protected. At the most basic level, this could entail involving people with lived experience of whistleblowing as consultants during production. In this way, we can avoid scenarios where whistleblowing is conflated with hacking, and where, as a result, whistleblowing is portrayed as sneaky or somehow wrong.
We want to know: What did you think of “Corey the Whistle?” Are there any fictional whistleblowing stories that you find particularly inspiring? Write our communications manager, Sarah Gamard, at email@example.com or tell us via our social media.