Guardians of the People

As a UK gas costs fall under the spotlight for alleged price-fixing, Reuben Guttman makes the case for whistleblowers.

NEW YORK – A revival of Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, is currently running on Broadway.  The drama tells the story of a doctor who blows the whistle on a Norwegian town’s bathhouse because it draws contaminated water from a local tannery.

Ibsen does not use the modern expression ‘whistleblower’, but that term accurately describes the play’s protagonist, Dr. Stockman, the bathhouse medical director, who publicists the health hazard despite skepticism from townspeople, who, urged by the mayor and his allies, are led to believe all is well.

Dr. Stockman initially has the support of the local newspaper, which is prepared to publish his findings.  But the paper changes course after the mayor informs the publisher and the editor about the high cost of re-routing the bathhouse pipes and the revenue loss caused by the renovations.

Monopoly of truth

With economics placed over health, the paper declines to publish Dr. Stockman’s findings.  Rationalizing the decision, the publisher convinces himself that Dr. Stockman’s concerns are without merit.  He tells the mayor that the editor ‘is not such a fool as to go and ruin his paper and himself for such an imaginary grievance’.

At a town meeting, Dr. Stockman voices what he sees as a greater issue: ‘I propose to raise a revolution against the lie that the majority has the monopoly of truth,’ he proclaims.  But in the end, the townspeople declare Dr. Stockman ‘an enemy of the people’; he loses his job and his social status in the community.

Though written a century ago, Ibsen’s play provides insight into the mindset and plight of what could have been a 21st-century whistleblower.  The playwright reminds us that, almost by definition, whistleblowers challenge accepted views or ways of doing business.  Deciding to raise a voice involves the balancing of moral obligations against the dangers of retaliation.  And, even where whistleblowers are correct in their views — or at least have bona fide reasons for airing them — they still may face retribution as their good names may be sullied by pre-textual attacks.


In the US, there is some recognition of the value of whistleblowers in enforcing compliance with the rule of law.  To varying degrees, whistleblowers have played roles in exposing frauds from Enron to Madoff.

There is even a trend in the US towards legislating to allocate bounties to those whistleblowers that follow carefully regulated steps and provide information to government enforcement agencies.  The Federal False Claims Act pays bounties to those who bring suit in the name of the government against people or corporations that cause the misappropriation of federal government monies or property.  The Dodd Frank Act pays bounties to whistleblowers for reporting securities fraud to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Even the Internal Revenue Service, which collects tax monies, doles out bounties to those who report tax cheats.  Under these laws, bounties are paid without regard to a whistleblower’s place of residence or even citizenship.


I have often been asked when traveling abroad why Americans reward ‘snitches’.  Of course, I say that in the US we call them whistleblowers, a word that arose in the 1970s when consumer activist Ralph Nader demonstrated that individual citizens that speak up on matters, including safety in the automobile industry, serve an important social role.

Now, I can point them to a Norwegian playwright who recognized more than a century ago that challenging accepted ways — especially those that cause physical harm — is worthy practice, albeit one fraught with personal risk. Compensation for taking this risk seems just.