In Crisis of Conscience, Tom Mueller looks at the unimaginable costs of not keeping your mouth shut

Crisis of Conscience, by Tom Mueller. Atlantic. $39.99.

Whistleblowing often exacts unimaginable costs. Picture: Shutterstock

Whistleblowing often exacts unimaginable costs. Picture: Shutterstock

In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's 2011 rom-com, Gil Pender, a Hollywood scriptwriter played by Owen Wilson, complains that he was born too late. Pender wishes he'd been around to gorge on the cultural smorgasbord on offer in 1920s Paris. What wannabe worth his Moleskin hasn't? In any case, Pender soon gets his wish - and meets everyone from Hemingway to the Fitzgeralds, Dal, Buuel and Man Ray over the course of several funny scenes - but not before he's accused of Golden Age Thinking.

The seductive pull of nostalgia and its corrupting influence on our collective memory is probably not something that Tom Mueller set out to tackle head on in Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in the Age of Fraud. Nevertheless, Mueller does touch on the concept in his expansive book and, in the process, he reaches two seemingly inconsistent conclusions.

On the one hand, Mueller exposes the fallacy of Golden Age Thinking by cataloguing the various legislative and moral failures of early 20th-century America. Indeed, Mueller points out that many of those failures presaged the environmental, political and social crises we're facing today. On the other hand, Mueller concedes that things today - at least as far as fraud is concerned - really are worse than they have been at any time in recent history. In other words, we can be forgiven for a little Golden Age Thinking because even though we do tend to overstate our own exceptionalism, Mueller argues that these are truly exceptional times. How so? Well, in case you haven't noticed, fraud is having a moment. Fortunately, so is whistleblowing.

Crisis of Conscience traces the rise and rise of whistleblowing, and the fraud it exposes, through a series of shocking cases. The amount of waste revealed is so vast it's almost incomprehensible, but Mueller's translations do the trick. Ten thousand dollars for a toilet seat screams daylight robbery in anyone's language. Well, anyone who doesn't work at Boeing or the US Department of Defense. This so-called "looting of the public purse" costs the US economy $1 trillion every year, or 5 per cent of GDP. By comparison, the World Bank estimates that fraudsters siphon $4 trillion out of the global economy annually. But eye-popping numbers aside, it's the whistleblowers we meet in Mueller's book who leave the lasting impression. Allen Jones is one of them.

An investigator at the Office of the Inspector General in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jones had the misfortune of discovering Johnson & Johnson's fraudulent marketing of the drug Risperdal. In 2002, he noticed that a cheque for $2,000 had been deposited in an unnamed account belonging to the state's chief pharmacist, Steven J Fiorello. What followed were the now familiar plot lines of Big Pharma fraud: deliberately misleading research, the co-opting of doctors and officials like Fiorello, intimidation, bought testimony and, finally, a costly disinformation campaign.

When the case eventually made it to court, Johnson & Johnson couldn't settle quick enough, but like every crooked company caught in a lie, they admitted no wrongdoing and accepted no liability. What's more, Mueller writes that they "threatened to lobby the state legislature to cripple the Texas Medicaid Fraud Prevention Act" if Jones' share of the settlement wasn't reduced from 24 per cent to 17 per cent. Sure enough, it was.

Crisis of Conscience has all the levity of one of Goya's ghoulish paintings, but nevertheless the stories of Allen Jones, Franz Gayl and others like them do serve to inspire. There's no doubt that whistleblowers are cut from a different kind of cloth. Principled, uncompromising and willing to do whatever it takes to expose their criminal employers, whistleblowers are often all that stand between us and the state of barely concealed corruption seemingly favoured by big business and their enablers in government. And they pay dearly for those principles. Divorce, homelessness and pariah status are to whistleblowing what a comfortable bourgeois existence is to keeping your mouth shut. And keeping our mouths shut is something we do pretty well Down Under.

How many bankers risked their pay cheques to expose dodgy commissions and general misconduct before the recent banking Royal Commission? How many bureaucrats have spoken out about the bleedingly obvious corruption and water theft that have made a mockery of the Murray Darling Basin Plan? And did anyone in Sport Australia have anything whatsoever to say about 'Sports Rorts' before they were exposed by the National Audit Office?

Rhetorical questions all of them, but they serve to illustrate a point made by Franz Gayl, the Defense staffer who went up against the military industrial complex and won. "Men and women are weak," he says. True enough, but Gayl's commend needs a qualifier surely. If Crisis of Conscience tells us anything, it's that some men and women are anything but weak and that we, as a society, should be forever grateful for the whistleblowing services they provide, which almost always extract unimaginable costs.

  • TJ Collins is a Sydney essayist and critic.
This story The high cost of refusing to stay silent first appeared on The Canberra Times.