These words were delivered at the Roxy Bar and Screen, Borough High Street, London on the 12th November 2014. It was an introductory speech to a special screening of the whistle-blowing classic Serpico, fundraising for the fantastic whistleblowing charity Public Concern At Work:
“The fight for justice against corruption is never easy. It never has been and never will be. It exacts a toll on our self, our families, our friends, and especially our children. In the end, I believe, as in my case, the price we pay is well worth holding on to our dignity”.
Frank Serpico said that, the man whose film we are all here to watch – and it is his film, not Pacino’s. Frank is a real person; a stand up guy, as they’d say in New York, who – and I see the attraction – lives in the woods.
Years before any of us sat here, blowing our whistles, or helping others do the same, this bloke, Frank, found himself in a world of pain in the NYPD, culminating in his being shot in the face….
Think on that….think on the fact that times have moved on somewhat and we rarely face the same level of physical danger….but, at the same time, think about how little else has truly changed.
Sure, the law has changed, PIDA exists – but only as a net and not a shield – and whistleblowers are seen by the public as champions across the world – even the media shine a positive light on us these days…
…But we are the awkward squad, we are a curse – a plague of locusts – upon employers, upon managers, upon reputation managers. We are dangerous. We are mental. We are subjects of ridicule and reprisal. That hasn’t changed at all, not truly.
In my first written submission to the Public Administration Select Committee I wrote: “I hope that police officers in the future will not experience the same frustration and anxiety that I was subjected to at the hands of my superiors because of my attempt to report corruption. I was made to feel that I had burdened them. The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. Police corruption cannot exist unless it is at least tolerated at higher levels. Therefore, the most important result is a conviction by police officers that the department will change”.
It is exactly as true as it was when it was first said….not by me in 2013, in London, but in the early 1970’s, in New York, by Frank Serpico, when he appeared before the Knapp Commission…
Around forty years later, and several thousand miles away, here we still are…Frank himself, in a rare, recent article, made clear that he sees the Blue Wall of Silence in policing as strong as it ever was.
Of course, in the modern world, Social Media brings some more immediacy to the kind of responses you get…when my evidence went in, an Assistant Chief Constable publicly attacked me, one of those ‘how dare you moments’ and another – a sergeant who uses anonymity because he’s, for want of a better phrase, utterly spineless – described giving evidence of endemic police corruption as ‘jumping the shark’. I had to Google it: it relates to Happy Days becoming gimmicky towards the end of its run.
It was only last night that someone I used to work with sent me a Facebook message…basically saying “I’ve never heard anyone say you were wrong, they’ve called you a cunt, but never said you were wrong”.
If saying that rape victims were talked out of crimes is gimmicky, or if saying that resource figures were doctored and left London to be ravaged by riots is gimmicky, then yes: I jumped the shark.
Of course, the dark question these kinds of people need to ask themselves is this: if I’m prepared to jump a shark, what would I do to you face to face? That’s why the true art to reprisal and ridicule is to keep it insidious…out of sight. I hope I’ve made that harder to do, by making sure that what happened to me was as public as possible…because sunlight remains the best disinfectant…
I was trained to deal with and survive confrontation, but not every whistleblower was…the biteback on whistleblowers has evolved but not stopped…and this is why Public Concern At Work must carry on its work with our support.
Without them, many would just wander around fighting shadows or being chased by them, being devoured by them…simply being alone and at risk. Because, you see, we are at risk, doing what we do, fighting things much bigger than ourselves – things which see us as a risk, and yet…we risk everything anyway.
Why is that? What is it about us that makes us do it? I’ve thought about this a lot, even sometimes questioned myself, doubted myself, hated myself…but, in the end, it comes down to there being something in each of us that is a little bit like biting on tinfoil – something hard and uncomfortable.
For me, I’ve boiled it down, managed to distill the reasons I did it, into a format that made sense – at least to me in my own environment…it came down to a simple choice: to play by the rules or not.
You see, I could quite easily have become a criminal as a kid, made a choice to walk on the wrong side of the line permanently – I’d have been an excellent smackhead and burglar, I assure you…I didn’t, I chose to be a copper and chose to walk that side of the line instead. With that choice came the simple fact that there is no grey area, no half-arsed effort: you are either in or out.
I was in, and I was in to the bitter end. Over my head, out of my depth, but, by God, did I stick to that cursed path. I walked into the room, walked up to the biggest beast there and knocked him out in front of everyone…and I can’t think of a much bigger beast than the Met.
I left with nothing, no compensation, no big reward, no glittering future, but I never wanted that. Where it counts, I handed the Met it’s arse, because it needed to be done. Where it counts, I won on behalf of all of the victims that had been talked out of reporting their crimes, or simply not given the respect and dignity they deserved…I’m retired from the first police force that gave me a whistle, and I still don’t think they ever thought I’d ever blow it…
I did everything that I had to do, everything that I needed to do, and absolutely nothing that I was asked to do. I did it because I made a choice to walk the right side of the line, instead of taking smack and nicking TVs…I guess that makes me stubborn, like a donkey with a fundamentally good temprement.
I suppose the one life lesson I used, to get me through it all, goes all the way back to a fight I had when I was a kid. The only way I could win, being outnumbered and smaller than the other lads, was to distract them, make them look left while I swung a right, a real haymaker that settled it.
In many ways that’s what I did with Twitter, with blogs, with public side of what went on. I made the Met look left and they didn’t see the knock out coming. I later learned that Sun Tzu advocated exactly the same in the Art of War…and it made me feel a bit better about having had to use tactics to tell the truth.
Do I regret doing it? Even in the darkest hours, even in those moments where I cried in the street while walking home, or stared point-blank into the bottom of a pint glass…when I felt crushed and saw even the slightest bump as impossible to climb, no, I never regretted it. Not then and not now.
What I did regret was the toll it took on others, because I didn’t have enough left, all of my energy being focused on simply surviving, to adequately defend those I love. I nearly ruined my marriage [I did], became distant at home; saw that my small children could see me upset, could see the stress etched onto my face. There was nothing I could do to protect them and that I do regret…but the fight against corruption is never easy…remember.
Of course there is always a future to look to…though it’s something you don’t necessarily believe at the time…even now, when I went into Reed’s the other day, the recruitment consultant looked at my CV and said “I can see this being a problem for employers…”
My immediate future was working in the local pub, which – as it turns out – was exactly what I needed…complete separation from the past. A period of deinstitutionalisation. It worked a charm. I’m not James the ex copper, James the whistleblower. I’m just James and, as soon as I let go of some of that, good things started happening.
I’ve just been to Mexico, flown out by the US Embassy and hosted by the Federal Police to talk to them about how to identify perverse incentives, data mainpulation and all of the related corruption. Hopefully, that’s the start of something that could lead me back there…
I’m also working with the Coalition of Police and Crime Commissioners, to try and help police forces get better at whistleblowing practice and procedure – to make sure no one else ever has to go through what I did.
I’m still in regular touch with Bernard Jenkin, the formidable MP and chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, who helped me swing the haymaker, and more positive change is on the horizon because he is like me, he won’t let it go. I my even get to meet Theresa May, to talk to her about her proposed changes to whistleblowing protections for coppers…
On top of all that, I was utterly humbled by the request from Cathy, Frankie and Liam to do this tonight.
I may be scared to death about how we pay the rent, but the clouds are starting to glow with silver linings, small ones, but visible ones nonetheless.
The one thing that I do need to do, so that I can really put this all to bed, is take the rough draft of my book, my side of the story, and get it out into the world. Breaching The Peace [The Rest Is Silence] is what it’s called because breaching the peace is what I did: I caused a disturbance, I rocked the boat, I made a noise no one could ignore. It’s going to be the literary equivalent of Ronseal meets Marmite…and it’s on the verge of finding a home…maybe. It’s another one of those uphill struggles, I can assure you.
I’d like to share some of it with you, and, seeing as my time is almost up here, I’d like to make it the end. It makes sense, to me at least, to leave you with some kind of explanation as to why, if I truly won, I left the police…
“I thought about all of the others I had come across over the last couple of years, since I started the process of raising concerns in public, outside of that spyrographed hell.
Were we the first, or last of it? That slightly anarchical generation of coppers: the ones who no longer blindly followed orders, who would question authority, who would, like me, leave a shit storm in our wake.
I’d come to think of us as the On The Beat Generation, the rebels with a cause, and thought about how, strangely, we were absolutely sod all to do with the future of the service. We were just an interchange, a cross roads to be traversed whenever policing caught up and worked out that it shouldn’t be what it was, but can’t ever be what it should; subsequently leaving the husk of a dog shit in its place.
Finally, I thought about people in this job and their long memories; about the circles, the cliques, about what the streets are really lined with.
By the end of that day, having listened to both my heart and my head, I knew that my mutton shunting days were over. A decade of my life was coming to its conclusion while the Commissioner was fighting his Total War on Crime, the Met were busy fighting their Total War on The Truth, the Federation were waging Total War on Themselves, and the Directorate of Professional Standards were running amock with their Total War on Whistleblowers.
There was never going to be a way back, no way to trust policing again; no way that my next twenty or so years wouldn’t be riddled with vendetta: I’d be squared up again and again..
In the end, and against the odds, I’d already won my battles in the Total War on Bullshit, so I started to write out my resignation”.
Anyway, that’s enough from me about being a whistleblower, about being in the police, because, to use some more of Frank’s words, “I’m retarded…I mean I’m retired”.
So, with my thanks and without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Serpico, a tremendous film about a living legend….