When Chris Wylie burst on to our front pages, TV screens and social media with his pink hair on March 18, even my 20-year-old daughter was interested in whistleblowers. Indeed, her highest-ever liked Instagram post was of her posing with Chris and fellow whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, at the Frontline Club.
In less than a week, Chris helped take nearly $100bn off the share price of Facebook (Update: this has now been miraculously restored), drew Mark Zuckerberg out of his Silicon Valley lair, cast doubts on the safety of data and, more importantly, democracy. Since then, he has patiently explained big data to digitally illiterate MPs and is getting ready to go to Washington to do the same in Congress. He has already starred in fashion shoots with Dazed and Confused and Vogue Italia, with more planned. Few rock stars have achieved fame as quickly as Chris and remained as unaffected.
Of course, Chris is just one of hundreds of whistleblowers who have revealed corruption and negligence in virtually every civil institution and large organisation in the country, from the NHS to the secret service. Most go unnoticed by the general public but their combined impact in terms of rooting out corruption and injustice is incalculable.
Unlike rock stars, most whistleblowers display great courage in coming out in public. Often, they lose their jobs, careers and friends and sometimes they risk even more. For Shahmir Sanni, who whistleblew about Vote Leave possibly breaking electoral law, things became very dark when Number 10 outed him as gay, potentially putting his family in Pakistan in great danger.
But is it wrong for the most high-profile whistleblowers to be seen as the new rockstars by my daughter, her friends and anyone under 30?
Not at all. I would much rather they saw Chris as a celebrity and role model than many Instagram bloggers or reality TV stars. He has shown what can happen if you stand up for truth and justice. Even more importantly, that you don’t have to be old and straight to get the attention of politicians. Not to mention that in a world where Trump is seemingly all-powerful, that truth and justice can win.
Of course, like a rock star, Chris Wylie and other high-profile whistleblowers can only have the impact they do because of the people who help and support them. Carole Cadawalladr, who relentlessly researched and wrote about Cambridge Analytica, found Chris and worked with him and Shahmir to write The Guardian articles that brought their story to the public. This was the result of two years of painstaking work. Also, Chris and Shahmir had great legal advice and even some help from us at Byline.
Whew! Just finished a 5 hour session with the US House Intelligence Committee. Very thorough questions from @RepAdamSchiff and committee members. Thanks to @NancyPelosi for hosting. Now I need a drink!! 🍸 pic.twitter.com/7fW6mY65Ju
— Christopher Wylie (@chrisinsilico) April 26, 2018
My only concern about the rock star billing is that it masks the fact that there are not enough great investigative journalists like Carole Cadawalladr and whistleblowers like Chris Wylie. Investment in investigative journalism has plummeted as advertising revenues have disappeared and TV bosses see it as expensive programming. Even more worrying is the near extinction of local journalism that is letting so much corruption and negligence go unopposed in local government public services and development. Here, whistleblowing without the support and exposure of powerful local press often has too little effect.
At Byline, we have our own investigative journalist team and work with many whistleblowers. As well as Chris and Shahmir, we have recently helped John Ford reveal the blagging he did for The Sunday Times. Using his acting skills over the phone he managed to obtain bank statements, mortgage records and personal information using false identities targeting the most powerful people at the time including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, William Hague and the former head of MI6.
Working with a range of whistleblowers has convinced us that their courage and the commitment of the journalists who work with them is essential if we are going to rebuild the power of journalism. We need this to hold the government and society to account instead of being the poodle of a few press barons and the establishment.
Stephen Colgrave is the co-director of Byline Media and co-founder of Byline Festival
Main image: Byline Festival