Thursday, July 07, 2005

The meek shall inherit the earth

While the dreadful news pours in from London, life must go on. To take any other view is to give into these terrorist scum.

Not quite in the same league (and many might take exception to me implying even the slightest of parallels) but scum nevertheless in their own domain, are the judges of the so-called European Court of Justice, and the various officials and EU commissioners involved in the Dorte Schmidt-Brown case, the latest twist of which was reported by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard yesterday.

Dorte Schmidt-Brown is, of course, the lady who lifted the lid off the Eurostat scandal, where upwards of £3 million of taxpayers' money was diverted into illegal accounts in a scam described as a "vast enterprise of looting" by investigators. So far, no Eurostat official has been punished for the diversion of the money and all the accused - mostly French officials - are still working for the EU or have retired with full pensions.

Schmidt-Brown's reward, however, was to be subjected to a campaign of threats and harassment. And, despite the assurance of Neil Kinnock - then commissioner responsible for cleaning up EU corruption – that "whistleblowers" would be properly treated, she was still left to fend for herself when it came to redress, which she sought personally from the European Court of Justice.

Predictably – and it always was predictable – the court not only refused to intercede, it actually ordered her to pay her own costs, which are estimated at several thousand euros.

Equally predictably, MEPs are cited as expressing their "outrage" at her treatment, the name Chris Heaton-Harris, described as "a Tory MEP and leading anti-fraud campaigner", cropping up, as it did in 2002 and again in 2003, when the story also hit the headlines.

Of course, this is always good for the likes of Heaton-Harris, who never knowingly missed an opportunity to get himself in the headlines, and the media wax rich on "whistleblower" stories as a good source of copy. But, when push comes to shove – from bitter personal experience, the bitterness diminished only by the passage of time – one finds that, if you stick your neck out, you are on your own.

Very much in the category: "been there, done that one", my experience came on 14 March 1977 when, as a working environmental health officer, I was also the press officer for the local branch of my professional association. On that day, I had been sent a press release on NHS hospital kitchen hygiene, claiming that a confidential survey carried out by my association showed that hygiene conditions were improving.

This actually contradicted our own experience, at a time when hospital food poisoning was epidemic and NHS hospitals were exempt from the law under the doctrine of "Crown immunity".

By some strange quirk of fate, I then happened on the original (confidential) report, on which the press release was supposedly based, only to find that the actual report said precisely the opposite – that conditions were not only very bad, but had deteriorated. It transpired that senior officials of my association had "done a deal" with the NHS, agreeing to suppress the report in exchange for a "promise" to improve conditions.

We had, in fact, been hearing those "promises" for years and so – as one does – instead of releasing the press release to the media, I published the confidential report, which made the top slot on local television that night and the local media.

The next day, when I went into work as normal, I found the boss waiting outside the lift as I got off at my floor and I was not even allowed to go to my desk. I was suspended. Then fate intervened again, with a food poisoning outbreak in the baby unit of the local hospital, and the story went national. In the full glare of national publicity, the Council was forced to reinstate me. But it was not to last.

Soon, I discovered I was being "monitored". Papers went missing, my work was under extra scrutiny and people I talked to were questioned about what I had said to them. Then, one day I was summonsed to the boss's office, to be accused of discarding official papers instead of progressing them. From the office cleaners later, I discovered that the boss had been waiting behind each night until I had gone, and then going through my waste bin looking for incriminating evidence.

With that, I decided it was time to go - on my own terms while I still could. In the restaurant of a local department store, I crafted my resignation letter with the help of the political editor of the leading evening paper. It went to my boss at exactly the same time as it appeared on the front page of the local evening paper and I had that once-in-a-lifetime buzz of walking up the high street seeing all the newspaper vendor boards proclaiming "health man resigns", knowing it was me.

The next day, though, all those papers were fish and chip wrappers - the day after, not even that. I had kissed goodbye to a job for life and a generous pension to boot. That is the price a whistleblower pays. As for the media, the dogs barked and the caravan moved on. It was no longer news. I was on my own.

That is now something Schmidt-Brown is learning. The media have had their fun and Heaton-Harris has got his name in the newspapers. But for Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, there would not even have been a report on this latest travesty, as it was only the Telegraph that carried to story. She is on her own.

It shouldn't be thus, of course, and if we had an adult media, it would not be. There was a time when newspapers ran serious campaigns and kept worrying away at issues until they were resolved. Now they are part of the entertainment industry.

And Mr Kinnock? He now rejoices in the title Lord Kinnock, enjoying a handsome pension to add to his bank balance already inflated by all the "damages" he has received when his overpriced lawyers found the media had put a foot wrong. But hey! Didn't you know? The meek shall inherit the earth.

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